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State-of-the-Art Dreams

A glut of high-tech jobs may translate into unexpected careers for low-income residents.

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By Linda Lutton

Frederick Bradley was taking out the trash one day at the Near South Side Community Job Training Center--which consists of two mobile trailers plunked down on a vacant lot at Cermak and State, by the Ickes and Hilliard public housing projects--when he noticed what appeared to be construction workers digging up State Street.

"I saw these crews digging, but I really couldn't tell what they were doing," says Bradley, an employment counselor with the nonprofit Lakefront SRO, which contracts with the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development to run job-training services out of what residents call "the trailers." It turned out that the crews were laying fiber-optic cable. "One of the guys told me they were laying cable all the way down State Street over to 67th Street, and then they were going over west," says Bradley. "And he was saying there are not enough people in the industry to do this kind of work." It was music to an employment counselor's ears.

Now, thanks to Bradley's chance encounter with the telecommunications business, seven low-income Chicago residents--and possibly many more--are in line for a piece of the high-tech-industry pie. Last month the seven completed a nine-week course in fiber optics and network cabling, learning everything from background theories on light and wavelength to how to install, terminate, test, and troubleshoot copper and fiber-optic cabling systems. Life was looking up.

"When I just hear 'network cabling' and 'fiber optics' I think 'good career,' something I'm proud to say I do," says Antoinette Merridith, an Ickes resident who had interviews lined up just days after she received her certificate for completing the course and is currently waiting to hear about a job at Ameritech. "Every time I speak to somebody and tell them about it, they're like, 'Fiber optics? Girl, you're gonna be making money.'" Merridith, who just turned 24, dropped out of Dunbar High School eight years ago when she got pregnant with her first child. This is the first school experience she's had since then, with the exception of a GED class she dropped after a month. She now has three children and is expecting a fourth.

"I live in public housing, but I didn't grow up in public housing and I'm not used to it and I don't want to get used to it," says Merridith, who grew up near 87th and Emerald in Gresham. "Everything is wrong here. When I look out my window I get depressed. This is just not something that I want for me and my children. I want to one day be able to get a house with a backyard and a fence--so they can go out and play. There's just so many things that I want, so many things that I want to do."

Entry-level positions in network cabling start at $11 to $18 an hour, and wages run as high as $25 an hour for people with experience. According to Jean Butzen, president of Lakefront SRO, there are 17 positions available for every qualified applicant in the industry. Lakefront SRO manages close to 900 units in remodeled single-room-occupancy hotels in Chicago, and has always offered job training and social services to its residents. This is the organization's first foray into job training for public housing residents. The way Butzen sees it, high-tech may well be the 21st-century equivalent of the lucrative manufacturing jobs of the mid-1900s.

"After World War II, thousands of people moved north to Detroit and the auto jobs, and a whole generation of people was lifted from acute poverty into the working class," says Butzen. "And we have the opportunity here with the cable and fiber-optics industry to do exactly the same thing. There are tens of thousands of jobs being created in this industry around the country, and if we capitalize on that then we have an opportunity to do the same kind of thing, to lift thousands of households out of poverty."

Merridith was invited to enroll in the fiber-optics class after scoring well on a basic-skills test she took on one of her first visits to the trailers, which she can see from her apartment. Four of the ten students who started the class were high school dropouts--but they all could read and do math at an eighth-grade level, the only prerequisite for the course. (Lessons included a good deal of reading, and texts were written at the eighth-grade level.) Nine of the ten lived in public housing. Eight completed the course, which was taught by instructors from Wright College, and seven passed the final exam. Lucent Technologies and C-Tech Associates, an east-coast firm that helps design training programs for the telecommunications industry, helped write and review the course curriculum.

"I think that this is a testimony to all of those people out there who don't believe that people in public housing can do whatever they want to do--they just need the opportunity," said Pat Tucker, a vice president at Lakefront SRO. "Our phones are ringing off the hook." She says groups from around the country are calling to find out how to set up their own classes. Tucker traveled to a conference in Baltimore last week to talk about this initiative.

The fiber-optics and network cabling class met twice a week for four hours a session at Lakefront SRO's South Loop Apartments, 1521 S. Wabash, the students working out of kits that gave them hands-on practice with cable. Both students and staff say that the graduation rate is attributable to the extensive support services provided by Lakefront SRO and the Wright College instructors. Students met in the trailers after class to help each other with homework. "There were many times that people said, 'I can't do this,'" says Tucker. "And that team would not let them give up. They all went through a lot to get through to the end of that class."

The staff essentially held students' hands throughout the course, and they continue to walk them through the process of getting a job. That kind of support soon proved necessary: the staff discovered that two students needed eyeglasses, for instance. One student was battling sickle-cell anemia, and despite being hospitalized several times during the nine weeks finished his coursework. About half the students needed to get driver's licenses--a requirement for most jobs in the industry. One student was helped to deal with a domestic situation that threatened completion of the course. The staff have met with employers, helped students write and fax resum├ęs, and taken charge of following them up.

Tucker says employers don't ask many questions about where the students come from. "The market is so wide-open people are desperate for employees, so that works to our advantage right now. We're hearing people say, 'I see the curriculum--if people have made it through this then I'll give them a shot.'" Most employers give applicants an exam before hiring them, but Tucker knows from Lakefront's other training programs that getting the job can be the easy part. "When we get people jobs we regularly check in to see how things are going. That's where you have to actually up your support, because the critical part is helping them to maintain employment. People have a lot of skills that they still have to learn, and those are basic skills, such as showing up to a job on time and taking orders."

If this seems like a lot of fuss over seven students, it is. "We're not trying to exaggerate the importance of these seven people," says Butzen, "except that they really represent the potential for many, many other people to do the same thing. The question we haven't been able to answer is, can we duplicate this experience manifold times?" Lakefront is planning to offer another fiber-optics course in late summer for ten more students, and the MacArthur Foundation is funding a study to look at how to fund and structure a larger training program. Lakefront SRO wants to develop a curriculum at a sixth-grade reading level so more people will be able to participate. Lakefront also hopes to find alternative funding; the instruction alone cost $1,600 per student and was paid for out of general training funds from the Mayor's Office of Workforce Development.

For Merridith, who should soon hear from Ameritech about whether she's been hired, the idea that she now has a skill that can earn her two to three times minimum wage hasn't completely sunk in. "I actually still can't believe I finished that class," she says. "I would get down sometimes and doubt myself, but the people at the trailers wouldn't let me. Once I got in the class and I started to get it and I seen that I was doing good and my instructor was like, 'I'm very proud of you...' When the instructor was telling me that, it's like, 'Oh, girl, you're doing good! Ain't nothing you can't do!'

"It looks very bright now," says Merridith. "I believe I'm just gonna keep on going, keep on going, keep on going. This is gonna be a one-way street for me. I'm not looking back."

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