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Building a new life -- one brick at a time

Sam McGee demonstrates how to lay brick during at a masonry course at the Chester County Career Center on Tueday. McGee, owner of a North Carolina masonry company, has agreed to hire anyone who completes the course.
Sam McGee demonstrates how to lay brick during at a masonry course at the Chester County Career Center on Tueday. McGee, owner of a North Carolina masonry company, has agreed to hire anyone who completes the course.

CHESTER -- Demario Moore dropped out of school nine years ago when he became a father.

Now 25, with four boys of his own, Moore is trying to give his family a better life -- one brick at a time.

The Chester dad is one of 19 unemployed men who signed up for a new masonry class Tuesday morning at the Chester County Career Center. The course is designed to offer individuals on Chester's unemployment list the chance to learn a trade.

And every person who completes the class will be offered a job.

"It means food for my kids," said Moore, who now cares for his children at home while his girlfriend works at a local restaurant. "I can provide for them the way they should be (provided for)."

The course is a unique collaboration between the S.C. Employment Security Commission, local adult education, the career center and McGee Brothers, the Monroe, N.C., masonry company that has agreed to hire students who complete the course.

"Never had this kind of cooperation," said Ron Westbrook, a Chester adult education specialist whose job is to help people transition from school to a job, college or the military.

Westbrook said this is the first time he's ever seen a company agree to hire graduates of a high school or adult education course.

"It's the whole package," he said.

The class involves 150 hours of training and costs students nothing. David Brown, who teaches the career center's masonry course, will serve as the instructor. All materials have been donated.

The idea for the program emerged from several needs. Chester County's double-digit unemployment rate ranks fourth-worst in the state. Textiles, once the lifeblood of the county, have dried up.

At the same time, county leaders say growth is coming. They expect several housing developments to bring more than 12,000 residents to the county over the next 10 to 20 years.

Someone will have to build those houses, thought Sandy Andrews, the interim director of adult education in Chester County.

She wondered: Why not local people?

Andrews called a regional masonry association and was referred to Sam McGee, president of McGee Brothers, the largest masonry contractor in the country.

Staring at 19 jobless faces Tuesday, McGee told the men of the career that led him to leave a suit and tie and pick up a trowel.

"A lot of people thought that I had lost my mind," he said.

He told them about the artistic aspects of his craft and the people who came to work for him and found a successful, lucrative career. He spoke of recruiting everyone from a McDonald's cashier to an insurance salesman.

One of those listening was 53-year-old Henry Simmons, a Chester man who spent his life working with his hands, doing everything from masonry to electrical and mechanical work.

He was laid off two months ago and came to find out if McGee had an opening for someone who could operate heavy equipment.

The answer was yes.

"It's good to know there's some opportunity left," Simmons said.

Adult education leaders hope the course will serve as a pilot program and inspire collaborations with other businesses.

People like Moore just want a chance to work.

"So I can support my family."

BY THE NUMBERS

10.6

The percentage of residents who are unemployment in Chester County -- the fourth-worst in the state

3,785

The number of jobs lost in Chester County between 2002 and early 2007

750

The number of jobs that will be lost when Springs Global closes the last of its two South Carolina manufacturing plants near the end of this month. About a third of those workers live in Chester County.

Source: S.C. Employment Security Commission, Chester County economic development office

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