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Last week I had the opportunity to participate in a training day for men and women who had been selected through an arduous application process to acquire the skills required to be full-time DWP employees. Offered by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) 700, this is a program that teaches every aspect of electrical engineering.

ibew training

Upon completion, they can become linesmen, working high above us on tall poles; or in the generating plants, often working underground with “hot” wires. They can do energy audits of our homes after which others can place weather-stripping around our windows and door frames to keep the cold out and the heat in during the wintertime. They can replace old-fashioned light bulbs, or faucets and toilets that use too much water—all things that can make our homes (and small businesses too) more energy-efficient, reducing the size of our bills, while increasing the amount of money in our pockets to be spent on other things--and all at no cost to the customer!

I heard many inspiring stories from these excited students—ones that can make you smile or break your heart—but all expressing hope and gratitude for new chances, for ways to start all over. There were former college students who had run out of money before they could graduate and others who had been diligently looking for a job for weeks or months or even years. Now they were beginning to see a new and promising horizon in their future.

These members represent a great diversity of our community—high school drop-outs to college graduates, all struggling to keep their heads above water, trying to pay the rent—pushing away homelessness a little longer. Black, white, Latino, Asian, men, women—all with a common goal and getting along so well with each other, realizing that despite their outward differences, they have so much in common—life stories with mirror images. These are the people we are training to make their worlds brighter and our worlds better!

Listening to their stories made me remember some of my own. I felt in many ways I could really relate to what they were saying. When I was very little, living in Detroit, my mother would count pennies until she could put them into a penny roll, and when she had enough, she and I would walk the short way to the market where everyone knew us and we would purchase not always what we wanted but what we needed [and not so much that we could not carry the groceries home (though sometimes the box boy would help us with that as well)].

I don’t remember being hungry—we always seemed to be full. A treat would be a Sunday supper of French toast topped with a bit of ice cream. I was lucky, though, because I did not know what it meant to be poor even though we were, and I always felt safe in my home even though I often had nightmares (and still do).

My stories changed my life and made me the committed activist that I am. Thus, when I hear about grinding poverty, and single-parent homes, of children whose parents want better for their young ones, with parents who want better for themselves; of adults who don’t have the skills to create a new life or to start over—when I see all these things and hear all those touching stories, then I know that DWP’s Utility Pre-Craft Training (UPCT) classes are not only worthwhile but are a God-send.

I remind myself of Langston Hughes’ poem in which he says that

 Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair. . .

(that) I’se been a-climbin’ . . .

And sometimes goin’ in the dark. . .

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(but) Don’t you fall. . .

(keep) climbin’.

Forgive my paraphrasing but what an inspiration! This poem reflects the torturous paths these students have walked. Their stories should remind us just how much Los Angeles can, is, and should be a place where good things happen!

I am inspired by the man who told me how he got into this program: A friend called him in the middle of the night, insisting that he join him in line outside the IBEW office to sign the book—the all-important book—to be given the opportunity just to apply for these apprenticeship sessions. He arrived at five in the morning and was number 57. He was lucky, though, because the line would soon wrap around the corner with hundreds of men (and a few women) who were eager to sign up, but at the same time anxious that they might not get selected.

These applicants have to demonstrate their fortitude and determination by coming back every three months to sign the book again—again and again—to be able to stay on the list, and then they have to wait up to three years to get the CALL, one that must be answered or returned within three minutes to become part of a class that would change their lives forever—or be put back in the queue for another try down the line. After all, determination and enthusiasm are more important than industry knowledge (Source).

A woman shared that she had always been in a shell but now had the self-confidence to speak up for herself and be able interact with her fellow classmates, many of whom will become life-long friends.

The people I met were in the second and third in a series of the UPCT classes and are hoping that the people who make decisions downtown at City Hall will have the wisdom to continue supporting and funding this vital coursework so that others who are unemployed or underemployed can be offered the same chance to get the same kind of training—training that will eventually provide them with the tools to be hired for jobs that pay well and offer job security, jobs with benefits—the kind that help pay the medical expenses for a wife with cancer or a child with asthma or a husband with a back injury. They want jobs that they can love and look forward to every day because they will be confident they will be treated in those positions with respect and listened to about their concerns—jobs which can offer that ladder they can climb to work their way up to even better, more highly skilled positions.

I heard of stories of people who were seeking a higher education but had to stop pursuing that dream, yet now look to this program as a way to earn a good living and at the same time offer a second chance to finish college; people who want to create innovative strategies to teach others how to follow their paths—to serve their community, their neighbors, utilizing every aspect of what that word “serve” suggests.

The City is right now re-negotiating the IBEW contract. There are many facets to such talks with many possible outcomes. We must work with our councilmembers, many of whom are new to the job, to inform them just how important maintaining and even expanding this program is to workers and to the greater community which these councilmembers serve.

Like a ripple in a stream, the UPCT will create an ever-widening impact—expanding our economy, bringing in new business, creating jobs for people eager to work if only they are given the tools and the opportunity to make a good living.

Rosemary Jenkins 

Wednesday, 21 August 2013