Electric bus makers pave the way to union jobs for disadvantaged workers

This story originally appeared in Capital & Main and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration to strengthen coverage of the climate story.

Last year Armando (who requested that his last name not be used) was working as an addiction counselor when a parole officer came to his office with a flyer announcing a new nine-week training course in electric bus manufacturing technology. The company promised not to discriminate against the formerly incarcerated, among whom are some of his clients. “I wanted to see the class so I could explain it to my clients and maybe recommend it, and make sure they understood the opportunity,” Armando told Capital & Main. “And then I thought, ‘Man, this is a good company with good pay and benefits, and it’s in a growing field.'”

Armando signed for the class himself, and after it up in October, he was offered a position as a battery technician at Proterra at over $20 an hour, an entry level salary higher than he was earning as a counselor, with a potential to increase quickly. True to its word, the company didn’t discriminate against him because of his past drug addiction. Armando, 52, who has been clean for five years, did have to compete with job candidates who didn’t have dings on their record and had experience in manufacturing. Now, after only six months, Armando’s eyeing a supervisory position. He’s also been helping the company screen candidates and mentoring those taking the pilot course.

Community benefit agreements are a way for communities to leverage their influence and ensure they aren’t left out of economic development.

“I want [students] to understand that you can’t be late or get high or do anything stupid on the job,” Armando said. “There’s expensive equipment, and you could kill yourself if you’re careless. Some of these students never had real jobs, and I like people to get a second chance. But you have to take the nine-week course seriously.” The gratitude Armando feels toward the company that gave him a chance has made him work even harder, he said.

The program at Proterra is the fruit of a community benefit agreement (CBA) between the company, United Steelworkers Local 675, LA-based nonprofit Jobs to Move America, and a coalition of community organizations that established standards for training, supporting and hiring job candidates from nontraditional backgrounds. They give them a chance at skilled union jobs in the growing field of green manufacturing.

A CBA is a legally binding agreement between community groups and a developer, or a company, that spells out specific to the local community. Typically a CBA will be signed for a large development project, such as a new stadium, where the developer promises affordable housing, infrastructure improvements or living-wage jobs — or all of the above — in order to get a project with public investment launched. It’s a way for communities, especially marginalized ones, to leverage their influence and ensure they aren’t left out of economic development. When CBAs apply to private companies, they’re slightly more complex, especially if a union is part of the negotiations. Government funding may be included, too, to provide workforce development.

In the case of Proterra, a Silicon Valley-based, venture-capital backed company with a zero emissions bus manufacturing plant in City of Industry, east of Los Angeles, the CBA that was signed in 2020 commits the company to hiring 50 new employees from harder-to-employ groups, including veterans, the previously incarcerated and single parents. The company also agreed to provide a customized pre-hire training program for these groups, through Citrus College, giving highly motivated job seekers a strong overview of cutting-edge electric bus manufacturing technology. So far two cohorts have finished these classes, and more than a dozen graduates have been hired full time.

Proterra and the union received $650,000 to pay for the training and stipends from the California Workforce Development Board’s Greenhouse Gas Reduction Fund, a pool of money from the state’s cap-and-trade program. That money alsos for a training stipend and supportive services as transportation or child care so that will face fewer obstacles to such course.

We want to give them a career, not just a job.

Proterra is the second battery-powered bus manufacturer in California to enter into a CBA, giving a leg up to potential workers typically excluded from union jobs in manufacturing. China-based BYD signed a similar agreement in 2017 when its factory in Lancaster, just north of Los Angeles, unionized under the Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART) Local 105. With a nearly $1 million investment from California’s High Road Training Partnership and an additional $650,000 training grant, BYD offers a six week pre-apprenticeship, and qualified graduates of pre-apprenticeship move on to a rigorous three-semester apprenticeship class taught through Local 105 and Antelope Valley College.

BYD also pledged to recruit 40 percent of its workers from disadvantaged or marginalized groups from the local community. Its apprenticeship program took three years to develop but has now graduated 20 people, with 25 more in the pipeline.

After apprenticeship, graduates can enroll in college with credits under their belt. They can get an OSHA card as well as something no other company in California offers — an Industrial Manufacturing Technician credential recognized nationwide.

“We want to give them a career, not just a job,” said BYD trainer and SMART organizer Willie Solorzano. “With the credential, they could go into any manufacturing company, but the idea is to work for BYD.”

Meanwhile, Proterra is in discussions with its union to establish an apprenticeship program similar to BYD’s, going beyond the pre-employment training it’s offered since 2020.

Hector Huezo, a senior staffer at Jobs to Move America, said candidates at both electric bus manufacturers are recruited from community organizations, including the Anti-Recidivism Coalition, alcohol and drug diversion programs and faith based groups. Through an enforceable commitment in the CBA, the companies won’t discriminate against workers for prior incarceration.

“We create the expectation that [job seekers] will get a fair shot,” Huezo said.

All potential candidates for the courses, a prerequisite to employment at either company, must be screened through the Los Angeles County Workforce Development agency. And with the help of JMA and workers such as Armando, the final list is whittled down to 20 for each course. Manufacturers get the final say in who’s hired, and the agreements do not preclude the companies from hiring job seekers applying through traditional channels.

“The companies agree to be open to an interview and offer jobs to our candidates,” Huezo said. “We ID these people from the onset and look for the barriers they may face so that during training their issues will be addressed, so they will be job-ready and be able to compete with candidates with more advantages.”

Not everyone will finish the courses and not everyone who finishes the courses will be hired. Huezo added that companies must explain why they didn’t hire a certain candidate. “There may be legit reasons,” he said.

Out of Proterra’s first class, only five of 12 students received job offers at the company, and one has since been terminated. The hiring record for the second cohort, which ended in December, was better: Out of 12, 10 got job offers. Huezo said the first class started in the fall of 2020, before the CBA was finalized and case management for the trainees was in place. Now with stronger efforts to recruit, plus more active case management, Huezo anticipates an even better placement record for the latest class.

Typically, county job centers have a light, almost hands-off approach to workforce development, Huezo said: “We offer full case management and follow up to see what [candidates] need and if they are ready to be employed.”

At the first day of training in a conference room at Proterra last month, an instructor from Citrus College reminded students that they should contact her if they expect any difficulty with getting to class on time — an acknowledgment that many may have responsibilities such as child or elder care, or may lack reliable transportation.

The group of 20, some wearing masks and social distancing, included those with working knowledge of manufacturing tools such as torque wrenches. Two were women, and two were employees at Proterra, there to provide assistance.

Dr. Michelle Yanez, the principal of My Workforce Solutions, developed the current Proterra training with Citrus College, and said that one lesson learned is to give students more hands-on training rather than lectures, something akin to an apprenticeship model. She’s also helping JMA and Proterra bring other employers into their network who will consider job seekers not chosen by Proterra, ideally green employers or those in the electric mobility sector.

Recruitment strategies to attract, hire, train and retain employees from all backgrounds strengthens our workforce, identifies key talent and benefits the communities where we live and work.

“Another change that we made was we interviewed in a panel style on recruitment day so that all the interviewers could hear the interviewees at once,” Yanez said. Those included Proterra’s HR director, a representative from LA County Workforce Development and Armando. She added that the training will continue to strengthen the relationships among all stakeholders.

In an email, Yanez added that the college, county workforce development and Proterra generally do not know what each other does and how to work with one another. “My role is to bridge them and translate their needs to help them work together. For example, Citrus College and Proterra may not fully understand about WIOA training dollars but they do know that LA County provides supportive services and incentives for employers to train and hire Their participants. For workforce development, partners have to change their mindset, and we’re seeing that.”

Stakeholders say EV bus manufacturing is a natural place for CBAs, because green manufacturing is a high growth industry, and companies expect to hire many more workers in the coming years. Beyond California’s climate goals, the Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution officially supporting legislation mandating that 100 percent of vehicles sold in the state be zero emission by 2030. One local transit company, Foothill Transit, purchased 30 electric buses from Proterra last year. With the wider region’s plans for zero emission vehicles, there’s reason to believe the company will need more skilled workers soon.

In an email, Shane Levy, a Proterra spokesperson, said about half of trainees who completed the program have been hired full time: “Recruitment strategies to attract, hire, train and retain employees from all backgrounds strengthens our workforce, identifies key talent and benefits the communities where we live and work.”

Yanez said that, in theory, CBAs could work in any manufacturing company. “They must be employer-driven to be successful. It’s good if the company says, ‘If someone trains them we will hire them,’ and good if the company trains them too. But sometimes they put the cart before the horse; some training programs result in no jobs.” She also said a community college partner is important, as well as funding, which could come from the employer, or in the case of BYD and Proterra, from state and federal dollars.

Buoyed by the early successes at Proterra and BYD, Jobs to Move America is working to bring similar community benefit agreements to other areas of the country, including regions less hospitable to unions. “We are not a coalition for minimum wage jobs,” Huezo said. “Once people get in jobs, we want them to get good benefits. A piece of this [training] is giving workers [the chance] to decide for themselves if the union is right for them.”

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