Hard Working: Training for Something New

April 10, 2009

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Donald Davis (WBEZ/Adriene Hill)


The unemployment rate just keeps going up—which means more and more people are thinking about changing careers. There's money out there to help make that happen. As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Illinois is in line for about 26 million dollars to help pay for adult employment and training programs. How's that working for Chicagoans? As part of our series Hard Working, WBEZ's Adriene Hill went to find out.Donald Davis is learning to drive a truck.
 
DAVIS: Now the main thing we have to do is put our seatbelt on.

HILL: Fair enough.

DAVIS: We have to do that. Here we go.
 
He steers a tractor trailer around in slow circles in at a lot at Olive-Harvey College, one of the city colleges of Chicago. Davis is working toward a CDL-Class A license; it'll take about 200 hours in the classroom and behind the wheel. He's learning to do things like make those seemingly impossible turns big trucks make into little tiny spaces. Orange cones dot the practice lot.

For Davis, who's 40, driving a tractor trailer isn't a huge career jump. He says he was laid off after 6 years driving for Allied Waste.

DAVIS: I've driven big equipment before, but this is like the biggest of the biggest I've ever driven and I really like it, I really do.
 
He's smiles when he tells me his height, and he's a little on the short side, is a part of why he likes being in the biggest truck on the road. He also just likes to drive.

Davis's training costs, nearly $5000 are being paid for with a grant from a federal program called the Workforce Investment Act—or WIA. And WIA is only one part of a giant acronym soup of grants, organizations, and resources available to unemployed people.

HANSON: It's vast.

Dave Hanson is the executive director of the Business Development Services division of the Chicago Department of Community Development. (I did say this was complicated.)  He explains what the city calls “Mayor Daley's Worknet Chicago," which helps coordinate resources for city residents.

HANSON: That consists of five workforce centers, two workforce centers for business, then 20 other smaller delegate agencies, feeder systems and training providers.
 
In the city alone there are about a hundred of those training providers, many of which have multiple courses. And, Chicago's not the only place to go for help. There are similar workforce networks around the state.

So how did Davis navigate from being laid off to learning to drive a truck for free? Step by step.

One) He went into an unemployment office to get benefits. Two) A caseworker there suggested he go to one of Chicago's workforce centers. Three) At the workforce center he was given an evaluation and they Four) suggested Davis meet William Nixon who helps match people to training.

NIXON: I went out to the office Mr. Donald Davis was from and we did an orientation about the program itself.

Nixon tries to figure out who's really committed to the trucker's life, who'll make a good candidate, so Five) Nixon and Davis talked one on one.

NIXON: He said to me he was willing to do what it took even though he has a family, which was a concern of mine, to have a family and be a truck driver means you are going to be away from them a lot. But he convinced me that he was willing to do what it took to get the training and then from there to acquire a job as a truck driver.

And Six) After some research Davis registered for WIA funding at Olive- Harvey College—and started studying for his trucking license.

The path to training and funding can seem a bit like a layer cake of people and bureaucracy. But for truck-driver-to-be Davis, the system got him to a good place.

DAVIS: It's not complicated, it's just a matter of staying focused on what you have to do. When they ask you to go do something you have do it. When you have a question, calling and asking instead of assuming. So I mean you have to just be thorough.
 
When he gets his Class A license he feels pretty good about the likelihood he'll get a job--there's always trucking he says. But he doesn't expect to make as much starting out as he used to.

I ask him how he thinks about this time in his life.
 
DAVIS: Me myself, I'm a God fearing man so I have faith. So for me to say I would really worry about it, I don't concern myself with it. I focus on what I have to do and do it.

It's that focus that got him here, to this class with WIA funding, instead of, as he says, on his couch, grumbling about being laid off.

Over the next few months, we'll stay in touch with Donald Davis, to see if the training gets him the job he's working toward.

Related: Job Training Resources

Music Button: Jay Farrar, "Open Ground", from the The Slaughter Rule: Original Soundtrack, (Bloodshot records)

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