William Griffin III was on the floor playing with his son last month when his phone rang with a once-in-a-lifetime question: “Would you like to introduce the Vice President?”
In three days, Vice President Kamala Harris would be visiting the Sheet Metal Workers Local 19 union where Griffin is a third-year apprentice. Griffin, 28, had never written a speech or spoken publicly to “anyone, anywhere,” but “you don’t say no to this.”
It’s been a whirlwind of opportunities since Griffin participated in PennAssist, a 12-month program to help young graduates of Philadelphia’s career and technical high schools and city residents — especially minorities and women — enter the building trades. The initiative, which ran between 2017-2020, was a collaboration of Penn Medicine, the School District of Philadelphia, Penn’s construction firm LF Driscoll, and the Philadelphia Building Trades Council. Griffin worked from 2018-2019 with the subcontractors building the $1.6 billion Pavilion at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania (HUP). PennAssist matched the young people in the program with the most suitable trades based on a skills assessment and a training boot camp. Griffin primarily worked with the electricians but said he gained exposure to many other construction trades.
“There were electricians, plumbers, sheet metal workers, carpenters, painters, insulators, boilermakers, foremen … everyone was working together to make sure that this job got completed,” Griffin said. “We were learning cutting-edge technology and using a lot of new tools and methods, because the technology in that hospital is so advanced. It felt really good to be a part of it.”
It wasn’t just on-the-job experience. Two evenings a week, instructors with the Construction Apprentice Preparatory Program (CAPP) led the PennAssist participants in classes to learn the necessary math and other skills to pass the apprenticeship tests required to join their respective trade unions.
“We were all on the same track, all trying to accomplish that same goal,” Griffin said. “Some nights were hard — we might have had a tough day on the job, or the math wasn’t clicking — but we all stuck in there together.”
Construction had always called to Griffin. He had attended Jules E. Mastbaum High School, a career and technical school in Philadelphia’s Kensington neighborhood, but had lost interest after his carpentry teacher left mid-way through senior year. By the time he found PennAssist, he was married, owned a duplex he partially rented out, and had held various jobs, while yearning for a stable career with benefits.
Right away, Griffin made an impression on Saege Steele, the economic opportunity plan manager for LF Driscoll, Penn Medicine’s construction management team for the Pavilion.
“Will had on a suit and tie and had a resume, because he wasn't sure what to expect,” Steele said. “Not only is that a great young person, but that right there is the perfect employee, because you want to be ready for anything. He has that same mentality when he approaches anything.”
William exemplifies what PennAssist stood for, said Lauren Valentino, MHA, transition manager for the Pavilion. “At Penn, we’re focused on carving the way, innovating, and creating opportunities and firsts for many other people to follow. We built one of the largest, most innovative hospitals at the Pavilion, and creative initiatives like PennAssist — with hard-working people like William — helped make it happen,” Valentino said. “From the very beginning, as Penn Medicine embarked on the largest capital project in our history, it was grounded in a desire to invest in our community.”
At the end of the 12 months, when Griffin wanted to try a different trade, Steele connected him with the sheet metal union, where he immediately felt at home. Currently, Griffin is working at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia putting in ductwork for MRI machines.
Griffin’s leadership skills and “say yes to anything” philosophy led him to a Philadelphia stage, on April 12, 2022, to welcome America’s first female, Black vice president during her visit to Philadelphia to talk about jobs. Getting to the stage was a blur — he remembers hearing his name, and then somehow floating up to the microphone, where he forgot his nerves and addressed the crowd. The crowd clapped and cheered as Griffin pointed out his family — his wife of five years, Michala, and their one-year-old son, William Griffin IV — and shared some of the ways that joining the sheet metal family had changed his life for the better, with its benefits, career growth opportunities, and ongoing education.
Then he proudly introduced the nation’s second in command. Looking back on that day, Griffin said it wasn’t anything he said that he’ll remember most. It was a moment afterward, when Harris invited his wife and son up onto the stage.
“I help my wife and son up, and she gives my wife a hug, and she’s playing with my son, and I think that was probably the highlight — that the family I created is now with me on this stage,” Griffin said. “It was a beautiful moment.”