Getting a new career, brick by brick Hudson County residents learn masonry in program, get head start on jobs
by : Jim Hague Reporter staff writer
Sep 09, 2000 | 127 views | 0 0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Cynthia Bryant hasn't enjoyed the best of times. While growing up in Jersey City, Bryant was a member of a dysfunctional family, she says, with alcoholic parents. Hampered by a learning disability, Bryant had a child at the tender age of 14 and then had another one two years later. She also fell victim to an addiction to drugs and alcohol and found her life, alone with three children, spinning toward oblivion.

"I really didn't have a bright future," Bryant said.

But Bryant, now 41, has endured. She's totally sober now and has great plans for her life. While enrolling in the Hudson County Schools of Technology literacy program - which she took to help write a book about her life's struggles - Bryant learned of the HCST's masonry apprenticeship program, offered as a partnership between the schools, NJ Transit, the International Masonry Institute and 21st Century Rail.

The program was instituted 18 months ago to give otherwise unemployable adults the opportunity to learn a trade in the construction industry.

As part of the program, the students in the program receive hands-on training in several aspects of brick and masonry work, then have to complete a three-year night course in the classrooms.

Upon graduation of the 12-week apprenticeship program, the students are then placed in actual positions helping 21st Century Rail complete construction of NJ Transit's Hudson-Bergen Light Rail system.

Bryant had enrolled in a computer course with the hope of finding immediate employment, but found no luck. When she heard of the masonry opportunity, she quickly enrolled.

"If a woman can be a mother, then why can't she be a brick layer?" Bryant asked. "I figured I had to be good for something."

So Bryant went on the interview for the program. A week later, she grabbed all three of her sons, 26-year-old Edward Bryant, 24-year-old Frank Bryant and 22-year-old William Golden, and enrolled them in the program as well.

"If I was going to do it, then they were going to do it as well," Bryant said. "It takes a mother to show them how it gets done. When I told them about it, they thought it was all too good to be true."

Wednesday, Bryant and her three sons were among the 25 students who will soon graduate from the 12-week apprenticeship program and will be placed on jobs, helping to build the passenger stations for the Light Rail. Upon completion of the program, the graduates will receive, in addition to job placement, union membership, which entitles them to health benefits and a pension plan.

"This has been like a blessing from heaven," Bryant said. "I really can't believe this is happening." The current class is the second group of 25 to move on from the apprenticeship program and into the work force. The first group moved on to masonry positions last August.

"It's great to see that the program is really working," said Hudson County Superintendent of Schools Frank Gargiulo, who is also a member of the North Bergen Board of Commissioners. "It's wonderful to see entire families working together for their futures."

The Bryant family was not the only family enrolled in the program. Davene Camara, a 41-year-old single mother, enrolled her 21-year-old nephew, Rasean Murchison, in the program as well.

According to Jerry DellaSalle, the business manager for Local 4, the masonry instructors take the program very seriously.

"They work during the day and go right to school at night for three years," DellaSalle said. "They learn all the necessities, how to lay brick and how to line. There's a lot to learn. The more you do, the better you are." So the instructors are told to make sure the students learn the right way - by building it up and tearing it back down again.

"But once you graduate from the program, you can work anywhere the union is," DellaSalle said. "We have similar programs in Texas and Arizona. Mason workers move all around, where ever they're needed."

All aboard Right now, the need lies within New Jersey and the ever-expanding Light Rail system. Hudson County Executive Robert Janiszewski was on hand Wednesday, watching the program grow to fruition for the second year.

"The beauty of this program as opposed to other graduations is that in other graduations, you come home, take off the cap and gown and read the want ads, looking for a job," Janiszewski said. "With this, they come home, take off the cap and gown and go to work right away. They're building a career, one brick at a time." Janiszewski said that the masonry construction program is part of a county-wide attempt, drawing former public assistance and welfare recipients into the workforce that has employed 7,000 Hudson County residents over the last four years.

"It's a perfect partnership," Janiszewski said. "21st Century Rail made a promise to NJ Transit and to Hudson County to hire local residents. When they said they couldn't find enough brick masons, we made a call to Local 4. And now, 18 months later, we're seeing the fruits of that partnership."

"It's a fantastic training program," said Bill Tomko, a representative from Local 4. "We're helping people who won't fall through the cracks. We're taking people who didn't have any skills and any prior knowledge and turning them into masons."

Gargiulo said that the 25 graduates of the program a year ago are still currently working as masons. "It proves that the program really works," Gargiulo said.

Bryant is beginning to feel comfortable with her new career. So much so that she already has plans. "I want to build a halfway house as part of Oprah's Angel Caring Network," Bryant said of the famous TV talk show host's program. "I want to learn so when the time comes, I can give something back and make sure it's done right."

Bryant also said that she has plans with her three sons of starting their own construction company. "Wherever I go, I make them come with me," Bryant said. "I'm the transitional mother. But I want to make it on my own and I hope that happens."

At the very least, it's a good start, brick by brick.
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