Once homeless, Erick Varela was given the honor of announcing President Barack Obama at a White House discussion on long-term unemployment this week.
”I was kind of nervous, scared and inspired -- all wrapped up in a little ball -- but you just go out there and hope you do well,” said Varela, an apprentice electrician in Eureka for Pacific Gas and Electric Company.
After returning home from Iraq as a combat infantryman for the 82nd Airborne Division of the U.S. Army, Varela said he burned through his savings and became homeless. Varela and his wife sent their teenage daughter to live with other family members because they could no longer support her.
”While I was homeless, I applied anywhere I could to try to find a job, including McDonalds, Best Buy, Burger King, anywhere -- because at that point, it wasn't about finding a house but just being able to provide food for my family,” he said. “Then one day, I saw a PG&E truck drive by and found the application for the PowerPathway program, so I applied. A couple months later, I got a call, and they looked past the fact that I hadn't worked in a while.”
PowerPathway is a PG&E program designed to train workers and offer credentialing courses to produce new skilled workers needed for energy jobs. This program falls in line with the State of the Union address, in which the president said he wanted to deal with long-term unemployment, according to PG&E Senior Director of Federal Affairs Shawn Cooper.
”We are pleased to have PG&E sign on to the president's initiative today,” said PG&E Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley. “Unemployment rates are as high as 29 percent for young veterans like Erick -- about 65 percent above those for other Americans in the same age group. PG&E has the opportunity to match our workforce needs with the great technical skills and leadership ability that veterans and other young people looking for work offer.”
The president has a new initiative aimed at tearing down roadblocks, according to Varela.
”I was honored to be a face for this, so that the American public can see that it's not just politics, but a change that's happening,” he said.
Cooper said Varela was in one of the program's first graduating classes in 2009.
”Erick was with many other talented individuals, and he proved to us that he has work ethic and commitment in what he does,” Cooper said. “When he was in the military, he had a mission, and he has that same mission-focus working for PG&E, and he takes his work seriously.”
When the program ended, Varela said that PG&E did not just let him go back to the streets, but instead helped him find a job with an independent contractor.
”PG&E has an 85 to 86 percent success rate in placing their graduates from the program,” Cooper said. “Of the 500 to 600 individuals we've had go through the program, we've hired about 350 with PG&E since the program began.”
Varela found out Thursday that he was invited to go to Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion on the program and how it changed his life. Initially, Varela was supposed to be part of a panel, but the White House was impressed by his story and asked him to come as an individual speaker, according to Cooper.
Varela said talking in front of all those people and cameras was nerve-wracking and much different than just practicing.
”As corny as this sounds, the program saved my life,” he said. “It got me off the streets and into a job, and I went from homeless to looking for a home.”