Cardenas leads a unique labor-management collaboration that is increasing opportunity for thousands of low-wage workers while improving the competitiveness of their employers.
In high-rise buildings and industrial parks throughout California, tens of thousands of janitors toil through the night to keep workplaces clean. Ninety percent of them are immigrants, most never finished grade school, and many are struggling to learn English while working long hours for low wages.
Aida Cardenas’ organization, Building Skills Partnership, offers these workers a rare chance to invest in their futures by acquiring skills-training on the job, while also helping employers cultivate a more efficient and knowledgeable workforce.
The nonprofit partnership, with offices in four regions of the state, was founded in 2000 in the wake of janitors’ strikes and contentious negotiations between the Service Employees International Union and employers. Cardenas, the organization’s executive director, convinced the two unlikely allies to collaborate on an innovative training program aimed at giving immigrant janitors skills that can lead to advancement and new economic opportunities.
“Employers benefit by investing in their workers, who can then provide a higher level of service. They can communicate better with tenants, and they can incorporate new methods of maintenance,” says Cardenas.
Employers benefit by investing in their workers, who can then provide a higher level of service.
Building Skills Partnership provides classes in English, citizenship preparation, and health and wellness, as well as job-related skills such as computer literacy. Most of the classes are taught at the work site and often during work hours, making it as easy as possible for workers to participate. Sixty percent of the program’s cost is covered by employer contributions, with the rest coming from private and government grants that Cardenas raises.
Investing in their workers’ training has paid off for employers. New skills and communication abilities among employees have led to higher job performance, allowing building owners to attract new tenants with a higher level of service. As a result, the training program is in high demand from building owners and other employers — more than the partnership can meet.
Over the past five years, more than 4,000 janitors and other workers have completed an intensive course in English and workplace skills offered at work sites in greater Los Angeles, Orange County, Sacramento, San Diego, and the San Francisco Bay Area. More than 80 percent of participants completed the program — a strikingly high rate. And many janitors went on to earn promotions.
“Many employers want to do something good for their employees, but wouldn’t be able to provide these opportunities on their own,” explains Cardenas.
Today, Building Skills Partnership is expanding into new industries and areas. Having started in office buildings, it is reaching out to employers and low-wage workers in residential complexes and hospitals, and planning new curricula for security guards.
Cardenas, herself the daughter of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States as teenagers, says she recognized the value of education early on. She would like to see more skills and language training for low-wage, immigrant workers. The key, she says, is to look for opportunities that will benefit both workers and their employers. The benefits to society are significant. For example, when low-wage workers are trained to the point of winning promotions, they clear the way for new hires, which helps reduce unemployment.
For improving the lives and economic opportunities for thousands of low-wage workers while providing employers an effective, exceptional way to invest in their labor force, Aida Cardenas is a recipient of a 2013 James Irvine Foundation Leadership Award.
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