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New law requires MassDOT construction pre-apprentice program

State legislators are hoping that a pre-apprenticeship program required by a transportation bond bill will give women and minorities more access to state construction jobs.

The provision in the bill mandates that the Massachusetts Department of Transportation train at least 300 young adults, women, minorities, or people from low-income families annually in a program that would last at least five years.

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“There’s a chance for more people of color and women to possibly get jobs over time because of new transportation projects,” said Lew Finfer, director of the economic justice advocacy group Massachusetts Communities Action Network. “But you can’t just sit around and hope it happens. Training programs help people get into a possible pipeline.”

MassDOT officials say they are still determining how they will implement the apprenticeships.

The requirement was tucked into the $12.67 billion transportation bond bill signed by Governor Deval Patrick last Friday . The bill earmarks money for local road repairs, as well as projects previously approved by MassDOT, such as the purchase of new Orange and Red Line cars, the Green Line extension project, a slew of bridge and highway interchange overhauls, and the potential expansion of South Station.

MassDOT officials estimate that these new projects made possible by the passage of the bond bill will create tens of thousands of jobs, many in construction.

Finfer said that the average age of people working construction jobs has increased over the years, which will potentially lead to a dearth of experienced workers as veteran staff retire. New hires, he said, pose an opportunity to increase diversity.

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“The construction workforce is a largely white, male workforce,” Finfer said. “With these new construction projects, there will be new opportunities for people of color and women to get into these jobs, but how do you open the doors for them?”

Existing construction pre-apprenticeship programs offered by local nonprofits, Finfer said, are already oversubscribed, with many more applications than openings. Finfer said he has pushed MassDOT officials for years for a program that would help low-income youth and minorities gain access to jobs. He said the agency was interested, but moved extremely slowly.

Dismayed, Finfer, working with other organizations such as the Massachusetts AFL-CIO and the advocacy association Workforce Solutions Group , took their cause to the Legislature.

The program could cost about $5,000 per person, Finfer estimated, or $1.5 million annually, if MassDOT takes on 300 participants per year.

That cost, said state Senator Kenneth J. Donnelly, would be a drop in the bucket when compared with the billions provided by the bond bill.

“It is only right that if we’re spending billions of dollars on transportation projects, we need to start training people for the jobs coming out,” Donnelly said.

Donnelly, an Arlington Democrat who sponsored the bill, said it is necessary to increase diversity in the construction workforce.

“What we’re seeing is that, even though we’re coming out of a recession, it is still a depression for young minority workers,” he said. “If you look at what’s going on in the economy, people understand that we really need to do something about jobs. . . . and if you look at low-income and minority workers, they’re struggling.”

MassDOT spokeswoman Sara Lavoie said the agency already operates several internship and fellowship programs aimed at increasing diversity in other career tracks and that staff are considering how to create the new program.

“We will look closely at our existing offerings and the program offerings of other state agencies, as part of our review of the pre-apprenticeship language,” Lavoie said.

Martine Powers can be reached at martine.powers@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @martinepowers.

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