Shifts in Workplace Culture Help More Succeed in Philadelphia’s Construction Scene

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) — A native of Philadelphia, Quinzel Washington, 27, fell in love with construction as a child. But when he was ready to enter the workforce, he found that getting into the field wasn’t as easy as going to a construction company and getting a job.

During his job search, Washington saw that Eastern State Penitentiary’s Masonry Academy was recruiting crew members for a paid apprenticeship program that would allow him to pursue union training.

“I had no bricklaying experience and no union connections, but I was looking for a long-lasting career that would provide good benefits for me and my family. It was clear that the pre-apprenticeship program could put me on this path,” says Washington, who attended Masonry Academy in 2021 before securing an apprenticeship with PULLMAN SST, Inc., a masonry and restoration company.

“From the academy to the job site, the motivation and encouragement I’ve received has transformed my life,” Washington adds. “Everyone is willing to help, teach new techniques, help solve problems and build each other up mentally. That kind of support really drives me to succeed in the industry and make a difference in the city.”

Supportive culture is growing in the industry

This type of experience is not unique to masonry. In all construction trades, peers and leaders—whether they know it or not—are mentors and role models whose influence helps others succeed in the industry.

For Serenity Peterson, a first-year apprentice carpenter at Madison Concrete Construction, one of those people is Layla Bibi of the Eastern Atlantic States Regional Council of Carpenters. Bibi introduced the Carpenters’ Apprentice Ready Program (CARP) to Peterson when she was trying to figure out her plan after high school. CARP, a joint initiative of the General Building Contractors Association (GBCA) and the Carpenters Joint Apprentice Committee (JAC), is a pre-apprenticeship program that reaches Philadelphians who are new to manual skills.

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“Journey through CARP was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that allowed me to jumpstart my career in construction and a personal journey toward financial freedom,” says Peterson. “Outside of the program, I look up to Layla as a leader. She encourages me to invest in myself and is an incredible example of the value of African American women in the carpentry field.”

Peterson also reiterates Washington’s experience of workplace support, noting how her bosses and colleagues made sure she was comfortable on the job site from day one and how they go out of their way to teach and support her so , as she is, keeps learning the ropes.

Relationships that shape work and industrial culture

For some, supportive professional relationships can fuel personal drive and advance careers. It was the same with Isaiah Labell when he began his carpentry apprenticeship with B. Pietrini & sons five years ago.

“When I started, CARP gave me great hands-on training, but I still had a lot to learn on the job. Luckily, my foreman noticed me and my work ethic. He could have easily brushed me aside, but instead He took me seriously and gave me a chance to learn and prove myself. Seeing that he took me seriously helped attract others to the job to also give me a chance to prove myself as a member of the team.”

These types of relationships continue to inspire new leaders for the industry. TN Ward Company Superintendent Mike Favors is still being motivated by another Superintendent he refers to as his “working dad”.

“He’s done a lot for me and his example has shown me where I want to go with my career,” says Favors. “He manages projects 10 times the size of the jobs I work on and for him it’s like riding a bike. My goal is to get there myself one day.”

A shared responsibility

These examples underline not only the spirit of collaboration, but also the idea that it is everyone’s job to help construction professionals and the industry thrive. Benjamin J Connors, President & CEO of GBCA, sees more and more contractors in Philadelphia taking serious action to change the culture in the workplace and on the construction site.

“Creating and retaining qualified talent takes more than providing a good salary and hoping the best will show up,” explains Connors. “Contractors recognize that when they provide opportunities for their employees—from the office to the job site—to advance their careers, they prepare themselves and their employees for success.”

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L. Elaine Johnson is a construction manager who takes this to heart. Having been dissuaded from pursuing a career in construction decades ago, she left a successful corporate career to finally pursue her passion. When she founded LaPutt Enterprise, LLC, a Philadelphia-based MBE and WBE carpentry company, she knew the organization should support diversity and education. Today, she is fulfilling her mission by making a sizeable investment to sponsor carpentry and union apprentices.

“As a small business owner, it gives me joy to know that we are making a difference in the lives of young people,” says Johnson. “I am also very fortunate to have the support of more experienced commercial contractors as I continue to build my own business. If we all do our part to build human capital in the industry, everyone can win.”

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Alley Einstein

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