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An Indian Reservation Struggles with...Plenty of Jobs - 2004-04-15

Money from casinos has improved health, education, and social services on many of the nation's Indian reservations. But on the Tulalip reservation in Washington State the new wealth has created an interesting problem: plenty of new jobs? not enough skilled Native American workers to fill them.

On the Tulalip reservation, major milestones are celebrated with ceremonial songs.

This day, a group of singers surrounded by tribal managers in suits marks the start of construction of a large outlet mall, the size of 50 football fields. The singers stand in the shadow of the Tulalip casino that will fund a large part of the project, expected to bring in six million shoppers a year.

Twenty years ago, when the salmon fishing industry collapsed, unemployment on the Tulalip reservation was a staggering 65 percent. Now, there are jobs for the taking, according to tribal employment manager Maureen Hobin.

"At this point employment is here," she said. "Because we have a casino, because we have a business park, more and more employment is available here. What's missing is the training and education level of the adults to prepare for the fact that there are jobs here."

To prepare people for those jobs, Ms. Hobin and other community leaders created a construction training program. The goal is to give Tulalip tribe members the skills they need to get a job that pays enough to support a family.

In an empty field, students in the 16-week program put in the flooring for the foundation of a house they will eventually frame.

Shane Moses, 33, has six children under the age of 10. Like most of his classmates, he didn't graduate from high school. Up to this point, most of the jobs he's had have been seasonal and temporary.

"Sometimes you used to do logging and woodcutting but now that they ran out of trees out here, it's hard to do woodcutting now," he said.

Mr. Moses now hopes to get an apprentice carpenter job with the outlet mall, which would pay between $17 and $28 an hour. He says the hardest part of the construction program so far isn't the physical labor.

Moses: The paperwork is the hardest for me right now, being a dropout.

Duchamp: So learning all the math, the formulas?

Moses: Yeah, all the math and the types of different blueprints. I'd rather go out and just do it, but you still need to learn by putting it down on pen and paper. Now we can go from in the middle here and re-measure it again and if we need to go out we can space our band-aids apart.

But there are even bigger challenges than homework. Instructor Randy Sibley says unlike his students at a nearby community college, people in the Tulalip program have a tough time with the transition from unemployment to a career.

"I had one student come up to me and say, 'One thing you should teach in your class is after you've had a job for a couple months and you've made some money and you've paid your rent and you've bought your food that you should still keep working. You shouldn't just quit.' Because for him that's what his parents did," said Randy Sibley. "They got enough money to pay the rent and buy food for a month and they quit. And it's just something I didn't realize. I just assumed everyone should know this. Everybody knows how to get up, how to get to work on time. That's not true."

Because of that, Mr. Sibley's responsibilities go beyond teaching skills. He and the other program organizers also help students resolve personal issues that may become barriers to employment. Drug and alcohol counselors are available to students who struggle with addictions. Tina Lyle, 39, got help with a suspended vehicle license, which prevented her from driving to and from work.

Lyle: Cleaning up my record, making sure I make this my top priority: to put away my past mistakes and correct them to where I can do this today.

Duchamp: How hard is that?

Lyle: It was kind of difficult in the beginning but they're pretty lenient here and without them being lenient I wouldn't be here today.

Lenient, to a point. A 90 percent attendance rate is required for graduation from the program. Instructors say that's what employers expect. But, since the construction training effort began two years ago, graduation rates have been low. In the last session of the program, only seven of 28 students were awarded completion certificates. The new outlet mall will provide 300 construction jobs. Most will be filled by non-native workers from outside the reservation. Still, teacher Randy Sibley measures success in other ways.

"I had one student from one class who got a job in housing and when she was in our class, she had a hard time being here," he said. "She was having trouble with medications she was taking, she had a hard time getting along with people and I just saw her awhile ago and she's been at her job for six or nine months. She's really happy, successful. Her kids are starting to be more successful. So if I have even a couple of students who can really truly make the leap from out of work to getting a job then I'd consider it a success. Cause it's so hard."

Along with their certificate of completion, students who graduate from the program will get hard hats, leather gloves and alarm clocks.