DN editorial: Rebuild a good idea on several fronts

Best friends and rec center regulars, James Robbins (left), 6, and A'Jani Godfrey (right), 7, pose for photos after a press conference at the Cecil B. Moore Recreation Center November 21, 2016. Mayor Kenney's $500 million Rebuild program provides money to refurbish rec centers, libraries and more.

THERE'S AN old saying that a man's reach should exceed his grasp. That turns out to be a good description of the city's Rebuild program, a $500 million effort to repair and renovate libraries, parks and recreation centers.

The program is ambitious in its scale. It hopes to do work on at least 150 to 200 facilities over the next seven years. That alone would make up, in some cases, for decades of neglect of these neighborhood assets.

The city also plans to use Rebuild as a lever to create more minority and female participation in the building trades, the collection of unions - carpenters, electricians, plumbers, etc. - that do most of the construction work in the city.

The trades generally are a desert when it comes to diversity. No solid data from the unions exist on their workforce (it's kept secret) but the most recent data taken from publicly funded building projects that must disclose race and gender show that 76 percent of the workers are white, and 99 percent of them male. (The data also show that most live outside the city.)

The crafts are more like ancient clans than modern organizations. Jobs are handed down from father to son or, in a pinch, to a nephew. Certain ethnic groups have tended to dominate crafts - Italians for masonry, Irish for electricians. Only the Laborers, who are on the lowest rung in terms of pay, have a sizable black presence. As to women, the sign on this clubhouse's door reads: "No Girlz Allowed!"

Can the city put a dent in these numbers? It certainly hopes to try. The Rebuild program has a plan to increase minority and female union construction workers. The goal is to have 40 percent of the hours spent on Rebuild projects go to minorities and women. Not immediately - the pool of workers is not large enough - but over the course of the program.

The hope is that the unions will train through their apprenticeship programs, and Rebuild will do the outreach - starting in middle schools - to get candidates for these coveted spots and train them in the "soft skills" they will need.

There are a lot of "ifs" about the program. For instance, the city has yet to work out an agreement with the Building and Construction Trades Council, the umbrella organization headed by John Dougherty of the electrician's union. City officials say they hope to have get that agreement within weeks.

There is also a lot of skepticism about the plan. In sum, the attitude is: "We've heard all these promises before" with other programs that failed to deliver. City Council is a hotbed of that skepticism. Just last week, Council passed a resolution offered by Councilwoman Cherelle Parker that sought to advance Council's idea of how the program should work and to put the administration on notice that it intended to monitor every step.

All of this is good. There should be skepticism. There should be involvement by Council. There should be an aggressive effort to find likely minority and, especially, women candidates. Women have no need to succumb to the belief that this is "man's work." That's an antique notion, as any woman serving the armed services can attest to.

Our takeaway is that Rebuild is not only a good idea, but a worthy one. That Mayor Kenney deserves credit for pushing it. That it holds the promise of creating generations of women and minority workers in skilled, well-paying jobs. And that sometimes your reach should exceed your grasp.