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Facilities apprenticeship program brings new levels of Hill District community partnership and collaboration

  • Community Impact
  • Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
  • Our City/Our Campus

When Lemel Alexander gets to class, he’s also at work — and his day could take him up to the roof of Posvar Hall or down to the Cathedral of Learning basement.

Alexander recently joined Pitt as an operating engineer apprentice in a new program from the Office of Facilities Management that combines on-campus job training with classroom learning to develop the skills needed for participants to become licensed operating engineers in the city of Pittsburgh and beyond.

Born in New York City and raised in Pittsburgh, Alexander said his prior 10-year career as a hydraulic pneumatic mechanic in the Heinz Ketchup kitchens is what inspired him to apply for the apprenticeship program.

“I have experience in the maintenance field,” he said. “That alone and going to a trade school for areas like this drew my interest to further my career as an engineer. My goal is to become a journeyman and maybe one day a foreman.”

Dan Fisher, assistant vice chancellor for operations and maintenance, said the aim of the Operating Engineer Apprenticeship Program is to help participants do just that.

“The apprenticeship is a four-year program working with the International Union of Operating Engineers (IUOE), Local 95. Each apprentice is required to take a 12-week class, one every 6 months, geared toward work skills,” Fisher said. “Along that same time, they will be working 40 hours a week under a skilled journeyman, so they will be able to apply what they are learning in the classroom every day on the job.”

This opportunity to hire new apprentices comes from a longtime commitment to the neighborhoods that surround Pitt, as well as the upcoming construction of a chilled water plant that will be located on the edge of the Pittsburgh campus and the Hill District. The plant, which is slated to break ground later this year, will supply chilled water to the campus’ hillside area, supporting current and future development needs.

Fisher and Scott Bernotas, vice chancellor for facilities management, partnered with Kirk Holbrook, director of the Hill District Community Engagement Center (CEC), to add the Operating Engineer Apprenticeship Program to the plant’s development plan and guarantee apprenticeships for Hill District residents — all with the urging and support of members of the Hill District Community Development Corporation’s Development Review Panel.

“The new chilled water plant inspired us to ask what we could do to further strengthen community connections, reinforce our commitment to continuous learning and development and improve diversity on construction projects?” Bernotas said. “Partnering with our Community Engagement Centers and identifying candidates for apprenticeship positions is a model that can continue to be used across the University, supporting the Plan for Pitt.”

“We established goals to expand the number of apprentices and pursue additional ways to partner with neighboring communities,” Fisher said. “We saw the Operating Engineer Apprenticeship Program as a great opportunity to bring these two goals together. The union was in full support, along with the Hill District CEC, and we are excited about the program’s vision.” 

The next step in the plan, once it was approved? Find and hire the apprentices.

Alexander said he first saw the program promoted on Facebook and then contacted Pitt’s Hill District CEC for more information. He then held on Zoom call with Fisher and Jason Amenta, president of IUOE Local 95.

“I began talking with them and they connected me with Pitt for an interview,” Alexander said. “Taking the initiative and going the extra step to see what the CEC was offering was a good thing for me.”

The interview process consisted of a six-person panel of Pitt staff and Hill District community members. Cheryl Larry, part of the interview group, is a retired elementary school teacher and has been involved with the Hill District CEC since its inception. Her role was to represent the community and get the word out, since the position was not just a job — it was a true career opportunity.

“We certainly appreciated the commitment of Pitt to hire residents from the 15219 zip code, so we really wanted to pursue that and make that happen,” Larry said. “There is so much talent and ability in the Hill District, and I think Pitt will also find what a benefit the people from the Hill District will be to their organization — I think we both prosper here.”

After being selected and joining Pitt earlier this summer, Alexander said he’s had a great experience, meeting friendly colleagues and learning more about Pitt’s expansive campus.

“You don’t really realize how big the Pitt campus is until you work there,” Alexander said. “I’m proud to be here and have this opportunity.”

In addition to the apprenticeship program creating more employment opportunities in the Hill and on campus, the chiller plant has created record-setting minority participation on a campus construction project, with 39% of minority- and women-owned business contractors.

Holbrook said the expansive partnership brings to life Pitt’s commitment to community-driven solutions to the challenges in neighboring communities and the larger Pittsburgh area.

“We know that if anchor institutions make a true concerted effort to engage in a community-facing manner, we can not only find pipelines to talent that could fill any number of employment positions, but we can find other creative solutions to address some of the economic inequities in our region,” Holbrook said. “It could be the beginning of something great.”

The Operating Engineer Apprenticeship Program is part of a comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion construction plan.


— Sarah Keggereis