‘The license will open up doors’

A Kalamazoo city program is using business skills and licensing exam training to address the dearth of building contractors and upend a racial disparity in the trade.

A typical work day for contractor Angello Cruz begins at 6 a.m. and lasts until 1 a.m.

He heads to a job site to spend the day installing, repairing, or painting drywall. After work, he puts his son to bed around 8:30 p.m., then spends the next few hours working on estimates, bids, and invoices, before transitioning into student mode, working his way through a state licensing course for at least two to three hours.

The next day, he wakes up at 6 a.m. to do it all over again.

Cruz, 40, is one of 12 members of the inaugural cohort of Core 60, a new program that seeks to help underserved contractors of color in Kalamazoo not only pass the licensing test, but expand their businesses. The program is a partnership between the city of Kalamazoo, the Foundation For Excellence, and Room 35, a local consulting agency.

“There’s just not enough diversity in development here in town,” says Melody Daacon, Kalamazoo’s Neighborhood Business Coordinator. “If you look at all the housing developments that are being built, it’s the same people.”

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Like Cruz, most of the participants are already employed in the field in some capacity, and a few are already running small businesses.

“They all have years of experience working in the trades, but just haven’t taken the next step to get their licensing and evolve their business beyond themselves.” says Donovan McVey, co-founder of Room 35. “This is taking that business up a level.”

Having a builder’s license creates opportunities, such as allowing contractors to pull permits for new projects, and makes them more attractive candidates for hire, especially on commercial projects. 

But it offers protections as well, allowing them to hold their clients and employers accountable when it comes to payment and worker safety.

“The license will open up doors,” says participant Cory Yarbrough, 47. “If I have a contractor’s license and you don’t pay me, I can sue you. With the license, you can go after them.”

The program began June 22 and will run for 12 weeks, which breaks down to eight hours of weekly study time in order to complete the 60-hour builder’s licensing course.

But while preparing them for the licensing exam is a major goal, the program is about more than just having the right paperwork. It also aims to give participants the tools to create a long-term vision for their business, as well as learn the basics of hiring, book-keeping, branding, and marketing.

“We’re not working with people with backgrounds in wealth, so a lot of times their businesses were just about survival,” says Room 35 co-founder Joshua Gray. “Alongside getting that license, we want them to be a little more comfortable as they’re getting bids, and have a deeper understanding of hiring, budgeting, marketing, and their brand.”

The initiative is rooted in addressing the disproportionate demographic makeup of contractors in the area currently, but with a purpose far into the future.

“Passing the exam is important, but success for us is to look at these businesses five years from now and see that they’ve been able to take their dream and actualize it,” says McVey. “If they’re still running their business and they’re no longer in the day-to-day struggle, then they can create that generational wealth and make a real difference.”

The group meets every Wednesday for three hours – to listen to guest speakers, usually experienced contractors from the community, as well as network, socialize, and study.

On a recent Wednesday, the 12 participants filter in a little before 6 p.m., gathering around a brightly lit conference table in a downtown Kalamazoo office building. Most are coming straight from a day of work landscaping, home remodeling, or carpentry, but they also carry laptops and notepads. They range in age from 18 to early 60s.

The meeting begins with a check-in about their progress with the online course, and then moves to the evening’s speaker, Richard Barnes of Perpetual Motion Construction, a local roofing company.

Barnes doesn’t mince words when describing how difficult it is to launch any successful small business, as well tackle the particular roadblocks that exist for builders of color.

“They’re going to look at you differently when you show up,” says Barnes. “But your work speaks for itself. If I stop impressing people, I stop getting calls.”

He goes on to field questions from the group about a range of topics: how to find and keep reliable employees, whether it’s wise to hire friends and family, the benefits of specializing in a particular trade vs. diversifying, and the best way to deal with difficult customers.

Kalamazoo Mayor David Anderson and former mayor Bobby Hopewell both slip into the meeting to listen to Barnes, and at the conclusion of the Q&A, Anderson shares his own experience working as a licensed builder for 20 years, specializing in masonry work as well as general home remodeling.

“I learned how to do something, and it changed how I felt about myself. It gave me some pride in who I was,” Anderson tells the group. “This is a super meaningful thing.”

As the meeting moves into an hour of group study time and informal networking, Yarbrough reflects on how he, too, found meaning and purpose through learning how to make something with his hands. He was in a juvenile home at age 14 when an instructor taught him how to build the table which still sits in his mother’s house, an experience he says sparked a lifelong interest in building.

“I eventually want to teach, to share my knowledge and my skills, my trials. To be a sunny side to a dark side,” he says with a laugh.

He hopes through the program he can gain enough experience to build some of his own rental properties from the ground up.

“I want to be able to feed my family and help someone else too,” he says.

Cruz sees the program as a means to not only help him generate more work, but to develop his ethos as a small business owner.

“I’m learning you have to believe in your business,” he says. “And you have to get out of your own way.”

While the group’s youngest member, Jaleen Johnson, 18, a recent graduate of Kalamazoo Central High School, would like to eventually start his own business, he also sees himself working for some of his fellow Core 60 participants. He hopes to eventually master every aspect of building a home – the foundation, drywall, roofing, flooring, and landscaping.

“This is helping me get my foot in the door to learn every little thing,” he says. “I’m young, so I have a lot to go for.”

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