IBEW Electrician Highlights Fight Against Long-Term Unemployment
February 07, 2014
Vacaville, Calif. Local 1245 member Erick Varela was at the White House Jan. 31 to introduce President Barack Obama at a discussion with the heads of some of America’s top corporations about combating long-term unemployment – something the two-tour combat veteran is all too familiar with.
After getting out of the Army in 2008, he planned to return to his job as a heavy equipment operator. But his trip home coincided with the onset of the Great Recession and he was laid off.
“I got off the plane and was told the job wasn’t there anymore,” he said.
His savings ran out fast and soon he and his family were out on the street. Varela and his wife Katey alternated between staying with his father or local friends and living out of their car in San Francisco.
“I was looking for any kind of work,” he said. “McDonalds, Best Buy, I applied to everything.” On the rare occasion he got an interview, the first question was always “why is there a gap on your resume?”
But a chance sighting of a Pacific and Gas Electric truck changed his life. He went to the utility’s website and found out about the PowerPathway program, which connects veterans with training and career opportunities at PG&E. He filled out an application that day.
Obama had gathered more than 1 dozen CEOs to encourage them to revamp their hiring practices to help the long-term unemployed get back to work.
In the United States, there are 4.7 million workers who have been out of work for six months or more. And despite economic recovery, these long-term unemployed are finding it nearly impossible to get hired.
A study by Northeastern University showed that that a six-month work gap – regardless of experience or education – was enough to disqualify a job-seeker a majority of the time.
Researchers sent out thousands of fictitious resumes to jobs they found online. Applicants who reported being out of work one month had a 7 percent chance of getting an interview, while those that listed being out of work 8 months or more had only a 4 percent chance of being called in.
“If you’ve been out of work for more than six months, you’re essentially unemployable,” wrote Washington Post economics writer Brad Plumer. “Many companies won’t even consider you for a job.”
Veterans have been particularly hard, with unemployment rates among post-9/11 vets running higher than the national average. “I’ve got Army friends who just can’t find work,” said Varela. “I know guys who tried to get sent back to Iraq because it was their only hope of getting a paycheck.”
The White House reports that approximately 300 businesses signed a pledge to recruit the long-term unemployed.
Valera says the PowerPathway program is a model for other companies looking to combat unemployment.
“We’re helping people get into good, union jobs, not minimum wage work,” he said. “Look at me, four years ago I was homeless.”
Today he is an apprentice substation electrician, making good money. “I’m working every day doing a job I love,” he said.
He is also working with other Local 1245 members to recruit veterans, helping to create a website which would list IBEW utility jobs. “When I was looking for work, it was a shot in the dark,” he said. “We want vets to have one convenient site to see what good jobs are out there.”
Last April, Varela was at the White House for a forum on helping veterans find work in the utility industry.