Homeless and recently released from prison in 2011, Blair Martin knew she needed a big break to get back on her feet. Little did she know that her opportunity would happen so near her hometown of Compton.
Martin had worked all sorts of jobs that were either short lived or uninspiring — like driving a truck for her uncle’s now defunct trucking business or manning a cash register at McDonald’s for eight dollars an hour. So when she was given a chance to interview for a spot on the construction crew of the new MLK outpatient center in Willowbrook, she jumped at it.
The 23-year-old knew she had to make a good impression at the interview and prove that despite her past, she was ready for new future. Martin convinced the hire ups at Sharpe Interior Systems that she wanted a career—not a job and her enthusiasm, broad smile and willingness to work were persuasive. She was hired.
Martin is one of nine women on a crew of more than 130 working on the construction of the MLK outpatient center. When it opens in 2014, the center is expected to provide state of the art outpatient care including primary, specialty and urgent care for those not needing an overnight hospital stay.
Martin benefitted from the local worker hiring program, which Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas has championed on all construction projects in the Second District and the county. On most county jobs, at least 30 percent of the workforce must come from the area and some must be “disadvantaged local workers” meaning that they are homeless or parolees, like Martin.
It is not an easy job. The days are long and arduous.
Her shift begins before 6 a.m. On any given day, Martin, like the men on the job, carries wooden beams and 12-foot-long sheets of wallboard; saw dust and fine particles of dirt swirl in the air, covering the skin in a dusty film. The constant noise from saws, hammers and drills is deafening. Paying attention to her surroundings is key—there are holes in the ground, people walking around with long steel beams and dangling wires everywhere.
Larry Shufelt, the general foreman on the project who hired Martin, estimates that only 1 out of 5 apprentices make it through the end of the three-year training program to become journeyman-or a full union member.
Trainees such as Martin get both on-the-job training but also grounding in job skills important to all employers: “We talk to them about punctuality, attendance and discipline,” he said. “Blair’s work ethic is top notch.”
For Martin, much is at stake: a new life.
“Prison made me change a whole lot,” she said. “I realized I didn’t need a job—I needed a career that I can do for the rest of my life and that I will actually enjoy doing.”
So, while her new career is tough, it has provided a new path and Martin has embraced it fearlessly, said Shufelt.
“In this job, you have to climb high on scaffolding and some don’t like it,” he said. “She is not afraid of heights.”
But in order to climb, she needed a custom made harness for her petite frame. When the order was placed, Shufelt’s boss asked if Martin was worth the investment.
“I looked at him and said, ‘yeah, she is worth investing in,’” he said. “She is going to make it.”