In the spring of 2017, the Obama family made a $1 million gift to the Funder Alliance with instructions to use the funding to support a “generational shift” in Chicago’s building trades workforce. The Obama family knew that underrepresentation of communities of color and women in building trades careers is a persistent problem, especially for Chicago’s African-American community. They also firmly support career pathway and apprenticeship programs for young adults as proven solutions to workforce challenges. In response to the gift and the guidance received with it, the Funder Alliance created the Obama Building Equity Fund (OBEF) and started designing philanthropic investment strategies to both meet the donor’s wishes and advance CWFA objectives. After a planning period working with the Chicago Jobs Council, the Funder Alliance is executing the following core strategies for the Fund:

Strategy 1: The Barrier Reduction Fund – Working with the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, the Funder Alliance has created a $200,000 fund that is being accessed by multiple partners and deployed to reduce discrete barriers to success on building trades career pathways. For example, many individuals, even after completing pre-apprenticeship training and being accepted to an apprenticeship program, lack the funds for entrance fees and tools. The Barrier Reduction Fund is being used to remove those discrete costs as barriers, which otherwise could prevent those individuals from advancing.

Strategy 2: Support for Building Trades Workforce Programs – The planning period confirmed that programs that support individuals along their building trades career pathway can be highly effective. The Funder Alliance executed an RFP between October and December 2017 to identify the best examples of those programs in the region. Chicago Women in Trades and St. Paul’s Community Development Ministries were selected through that process and each awarded $250,000 over two years to expand and improve their work.

Strategy 3: Organizing Buyers and Builders – The Funder Alliance is committed to aligning OBEF investments with larger efforts to move the construction sector towards greater workforce equity. CWFA has been happy to see and support an organizing effort take form called the “Chicago Construction Opportunities Group” (CCOG). In 2018, it is still in its very early stages, having been formed in late 2017 by leadership from the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority (MPEA) and the Chicago Transit Authority, with encouragement from the MacArthur Foundation and The Chicago Community Trust. This effort is very promising because it is already bringing together many of the region’s major “construction buyers,” i.e. those organizations and institutions ultimately responsible for the region’s major construction projects, including: the City of Chicago, Cook County Bureau of Economic Development, the IL Tollway, anchor institutions like hospitals, and the region’s largest private development firms.  CCOG’s core premise is that construction buyers share a goal that the benefits of construction contracts and employment be more equitably distributed across the region’s communities, and that by working together and coordinating their policies, strategies and investments, they can have a greater impact than they would by working alone.   The Funder Alliance is participating in CCOG’s Workforce Development working group, which is co-chaired by MPEA and the IL Tollway.

Strategy 4: Building Infrastructure for Trades Apprenticeship Pathways – The Funder Alliance is doing a great deal already to strengthen the Chicago region’s career pathway system through its Pro Path Fund, thus a small portion of the OBEF will be used to align the Funder Alliance’s construction sector strategies with its Pro Path strategies. Specifically, the Funder Alliance is working with Thrive Chicago and One Summer Chicago, to ensure that summer employment programs, when appropriate, are sufficiently connected to be feeder programs to construction apprenticeship of pre-apprenticeship programs.