Milagros Melendez-Vela

Economic Crisis is Driving Day Laborers Back to School

WASHINGTON –- For the first time in his life, Genry Salazar received a diploma and showed it off proudly. The day laborer, who lives in Hyattsville, Md. and barely finished first grade in his native Guatemala, went back to class at the age of 30 to “enrich” himself with knowledge.

“I used to work in simple carpentry and didn’t know anything about electrical engineering, plumbing or installing tiles. Now I know that and a lot more,” he said.

Salazar was one of the 36 people, including three women, who graduated on June 6 from a training program offered for a reasonable price by Maryland’s CASA organization and Prince George’s Community College. “When things get better, they’ll be first in line for the new jobs,” said CASA director Gustavo Torres.

The graduating class, which included Jamaicans and African Americans, had spent 12 Saturdays taking courses from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Paradoxically, the crisis is pushing more people to get trained,” said Mario Quiroz, spokesperson for CASA. In 2008, 21 workers graduated from the program. This year the graduating class increased by 70 percent.

The high unemployment rate – 9.4 percent in May according to the Department of Labor – is forcing many workers to acquire new skills in a more competitive job market. Activists say the training programs for day laborers have been successful.

“Thank God I have a job today. But a little while ago, in January and March, I didn’t have enough to eat,” Salazar told El Tiempo Latino on June 11.

Construction workers have been most affected by the crisis. They have had the highest unemployment rate, 19.2 percent, since May, when 59,000 workers were laid off across the country.

“It’s very important. There are more and more workers looking for jobs as day laborers, people who have had stable work for a long time and now don’t have a job,” said Andrés Tobar, director of the Shirlington Employment and Education Center in Shirlington, Va.

Washington, D.C. has the highest overall unemployment level in the region, with 9.9 percent of the population out of work. Mayland and Virginia continue to have an unemployment level of 6.8 percent.

According to Wilfredo Bohorquez of the Residential Construction Workers Association (ASTRACOR) in Virginia, times of economic crisis are the most appropriate times for workers to seek more training.

“When they have a job, they don’t have time to get trained, but now is the best time to learn,” he said. ASTRACOR offers free classes in subjects including electrical engineering, carpentry, plumbing, tile installation, and reading blue prints.

Bohorquez explained that he used to get calls asking for work. “Now, 85 percent of the calls are for information about our courses,” he said.

When the storm passes, the 36 graduates are confident that they will be better equipped to compete in the job market.


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