Come June, the Evening Trades Apprenticeship Preparation Program will be without funding.
But Deborah Williams, the program's director, says she isn't likely to let that happen.
The ETAP program, in existence since 1998, allows low-income, and many minority, people to gain pre-employment experience in the trades. ETAP is funded solely through government grants and contracts -- the Housing Authority of Portland and the Portland Development Commission provide about $400,000 the program requires to run. They're also one of the only pre-apprenticeship programs in town – all the other pre-apprenticeship programs are run through parent organizations.
"Our dollars have come to an end," Williams said.
With a shrinking economy, she said she's unsure if grants will be approved. And in that, she sees a possible opportunity to change the program for the better.
Portland Community College – where Williams' program now operates – has been providing assistance in applying for grants. But Williams would like to see her program put responsibility on the two groups of people benefitting most from their services – construction companies and students.
"We have provided services to contractors for 11 years without saying 'pay for this,'" Williams said. "There's been talk about how that's going to look."
Many of the contractors that Williams supplies with workers – including Hoffman and Stacy and Witbeck – have seen a 30 to 40 percent drop in business, says Kevin Cady of Hoffman Construction.
Cady says ETAP has been a good pool of employees that has allowed Hoffman to diversify its workforce. Williams' program essentially provides unions and companies with a way to prescreen apprentices who are ready with basic training on safety, tools and the workplace.
In a bitter balancing act, the down economy is taking a hit on many companies' ability to retain even seasoned employees, and making it difficult to afford to train younger workers. But if companies like Hoffman don't nurture replacement workers, retiring baby boomers will cause a labor shortage, says Cady.
John Gardner, investment manager for Construction Apprenticeship and Workforce Solutions, Inc., a nonprofit entity created to increase minorities and women in the trades, says companies have a good incentive to fund programs that give them quality employees. Every week, workers get injured or grow to retirement age.
"There constantly has to be new workers," Gardner said.
And Williams would like for those workers to come from the population her program serves.
"Most people that we're serving are unable to pay for this training," she said. "People that want to be in our program have offered that. It has been an option but it still wouldn't be enough."
Williams believes that allowing able students to pay for a portion of the program's costs, while providing training regardless of the ability to pay, would strengthen the program.
"In the long run, it will be so powerful, because everyone will truly have a buy-in," she said.
She also thinks the economy could motivate current students and program graduates to undertake additional training and work harder.
"If you can only afford five men instead of 10, you want those five men to be able to do two jobs," she said. "It's all about what you're putting out."
But one of Williams' chief concerns is maintaining the original intent of her program – to serve the underserved communities in Portland. With a majority of funding coming from the Housing Authority, public housing residents now enjoy the ability to command first seats in the program. But with that funding gone, it's unclear how entrance requirements might change.
The current ETAP class of about 30 students will end in June, the same month ETAP's current grants run out. Williams says she hopes it won't be her last.
"There is such a demonstrated need for this program in the community," she said.