This pandemic jobs program may become a permanent part of Austin


AUSTIN (KXAN) — A program launched to help Austinites find work during the pandemic is expanding.

The Austin Civilian Conservation Corps (ACCC) is looking for a new crew that will focus on reducing wildfire risks this fall. It will be one of about a dozen projects that have kept people employed since the program’s launch last fall.

And now, the city council member behind ACCC doesn’t want to see the program end.

“Especially after a lot of the rain, the trails will grow over, so we’re coming through with loppers and clearing it out, making it easier for people to walk through,” explained Michael Dehay.

He’s the ACCC crew lead for the American Youthworks team, one of the community partners that manages the program.

Dehay seems to know a lot about conservation, but he’s only been in the field for about five months.

“I had been doing the print shop job for 10 years and kind of thought I’d be doing that for my life,” he said.

He lost his job in March during COVID-19 shutdowns. So did everyone else on this team.

“Never touched a chainsaw in my life before this job,” one of them said.

That’s when they found the ACCC — modeled off President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s.

The goal is to employ those hit by the pandemic through city projects and provide them with the training to be able to pursue a long-term job after the project wraps up, which can range from a few weeks to a few months.

More than 100 people have cleared trails, created artwork and even worked on construction projects in the City of Austin.

“It helps us to accomplish multiple city goals at once: we are providing the jobs, we are providing training and we are beautifying and improving our city,” said Alison Alter, city council member for District 10.

Alter, who created the program, said those jobs aren’t going away anytime soon, and the city needs a reliable, trained labor force.

She also said labor ends up being cheaper for the city than hiring contractors, since the projects are typically seasonal for different departments, and crews can be hard to find.

“If you can piece all of those together to create a crew that’s running all year round, it’s much, much cheaper than just trying to tackle sort of the one project at a time,” Alter said.

It’s why she’s trying to secure $5 million for the program for the next fiscal year.

“So that it can serve as a workforce hub and allow all the departments that have these projects that are climate, creative related to get those things done,” Alter said.

Currently, she said they have $1.9 million through the fiscal year. About $500,000 came from the general fund and the rest was reallocated from seven different department budgets.

So far, only about $850,000 has been committed for next year, but Alter hopes city council will make room in the budget as well as the American Rescue Plan funding, both of which are currently being discussed.

Dehay’s time with ACCC ends in October, but he plans to stay in his new line of work. He’s already applied to a conservation-related job with the city.

“I love it,” he said.

In April, Travis County commissioners voted to create a similar program, based off of Austin’s success.

The Civilian Conservation Corps will create jobs that will also benefit the environment.

Commissioners are in the process of developing a strategy for the program. The goal is to have that done by June 15th.

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