BY ALEXIA ELEJALDE-RUIZ
TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE
CHICAGO — After four years in prison, Antonio Crum tried to start his life anew. He married, focused on fatherhood and got a degree in electrical engineering at a local trade school.
Friends helped get him jobs here and there — most recently as a part-time driver for an outpatient surgical center — but his own efforts to find stable work went nowhere, he said.
“People were telling me it doesn’t matter how many years ago (my crime) was; they couldn’t trust me,” said Crum, 35, who was released from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2008 after serving time on a burglary conviction.
“It almost makes you want to go back to what you used to do.”
But instead of falling backward, Crum seized a chance to climb — sometimes to stomach-flipping 100-foot heights.
Crum is part of the inaugural class of the Wireless Field Engineer Training Program, a collaboration between the nonprofit Safer Foundation and a local cell tower site development contractor who hopes to marry his industry’s need for skilled workers with the ex-offender population’s need for good-paying jobs.
“It’s not a noble venture on my part,” said Duane Gilmore, chief operating officer at Tower-MTM, the employer partner in the program. “It is just a smart business move for me to find smart, good people and put them through their paces.”
In big demand
The class of eight, which graduated from the 12-week program late last month in a quiet ceremony downtown, offers a glimpse of the potential for what Gilmore calls an “upside so high that it is scary.”
As wireless technologies advance, data usage skyrockets and the 70 percent of Americans who own smart phones expect connectivity wherever they are, demand is strong for trained workers who can scramble up cell towers to upgrade and maintain equipment.
Supply is weaker, Gilmore said. A contractor for wireless carriers, Gilmore said he has flown in trained workers he knew from Latin America to take jobs because there weren’t enough people domestically with the proper skill sets.
While the unemployment rate of those with criminal records is not tracked, they face well-documented employment challenges that can have dangerous and expensive consequences.
By partnering with Chicago-based Safer Foundation — a nonprofit that helps people with criminal records prepare for employment — Gilmore hopes to give those with records a leg up while saving companies the time and cost of training workers themselves. He plans to offer apprenticeships to each of the graduates through his own contracts and is in talks to get fellow tower builders on board as well.
“We need to find ways to not screen people out, but to include them,” said Gilmore, who is also recruiting military veterans to the program.
Apprentices will start at $15 an hour, move to $19 after six months and to $23 after a year. Within two to three years, the hourly wage could reach $35, which is more than $70,000 annually for full-time work.
Trainees received 15 federal or industry certifications that are both portable and stackable, Gilmore said, allowing them to work a variety of jobs almost anywhere.
“It’s an opportunity for our clients, many of whom are coming out of poverty, to go into a growing field, with a good middle-class wage, with further advancement opportunities,” said Victor Dickson, president and CEO of the Safer Foundation, which paid the bulk of the cost of the training program while Gilmore paid the rest.
Quentin Jackson called the program “a godsend.”
Jackson, 42, avoided much of the gang trouble that snagged his friends while growing up in public housing developments on the West Side and several South Side neighborhoods. “Always a schoolboy,” thanks to the influence of his mom and good teachers, Jackson went to college in North Carolina with a partial scholarship to play the trumpet.
When school got too expensive, Jackson left and eventually started a landscaping business, got married and had a daughter. But his life fell apart when, he said, he was betrayed by a business partner who bought equipment with a stolen credit card and ensured that he took the fall.
Jackson was convicted of felony obtaining property under false pretenses and was ordered to pay $29,000 in restitution and spend five years on probation.
Determined to excel
As his marriage fell apart, Jackson returned to Chicago to live with his mother and struggled to find a job. He applied for openings in office mailrooms and hospital maintenance but never got calls back. He went to temp agencies and got put on “some of the worst assignments” at warehouses or slaughterhouses.
When Safer told him he was eligible for the tower technician program, Jackson was game to try but didn’t think it would be a career for him.
The syllabus was unfamiliar and overwhelming: construction drawing, introduction to power tools, construction math, rigging, material handling, fiber optics. Five days a week, he left home before dawn to pile into a van with his classmates, traveling long distances for instruction and returning home well after dark.
Jackson ended up being a top student and the class’s unofficial morale booster.
“It is one thing to preach hard work and dedication,” Jackson said. “But for (my daughter) to actually see me going through it on my own, it makes things worthwhile.”