Posted on July 2, 2013

From Homeless to Meeting the President, PG&E Electrician Makes a Case for Hiring Veterans

By David Kligman

SONOMA — PG&E apprentice electrician Erick Varela has known hardship. As a U.S. Army combat infantryman in Iraq, he slept on the ground, worked 20-hour days, got shot at and saw comrades die.

Erick Varela meets Wendy Alvear with Operation: Care and Comfort prior to the Toyota/Save Mart 350. (Photo by David Kligman.)

When he returned to California to a tight job market in 2008 he couldn’t find a steady job and eventually fell into homelessness, living with his wife out of their truck while looking for work. His fortune changed when he applied and was accepted for PG&E’s PowerPathway Bridge to Utility Worker training program. Today he’s an apprentice electrician for PG&E in Eureka.

On April 30, he found himself somewhere he least expected — in Washington, D.C., alongside PG&E Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley at a forum to discuss job prospects for veterans in the utility industry. And he met President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama.

Currents caught up with Varela and his wife Katey at the Sonoma Raceway where he was honored last month with other veterans as part of PG&E’s “Heroes in Our Community” military tribute at the Toyota/Save Mart 350 NASCAR race. He even got to take a ride in a souped-up Toyota Camry once around the track.

First Lady Michelle Obama calls out PG&E employee Erick Varela during a Joining Forces initiative employment announcement for veterans and military spouses in the East Room of the White House in April. Dr. Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden and President Barack Obama look on. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza.)

Currents: What was it like to meet the president?

Varela: It was an honor. It was something you’d never think you’d be able to do in your life. Everything I’ve done in my life has been on such a low level. Even in the military, you meet a general and it’s huge and next thing you know you’re standing in front of the president, shaking his hand and saying hello. PG&E gave me this opportunity, so it’s a big shock that they selected me out of all their 20,000 employees to kind of be their sponsor or the spokesman.

What did you say to him?

They put us in a separate room in the East Wing of the White House. He shook our hand. It was just real quick. “How’re you doing?” He says, “You’re so and so.” And I said, “Yes, I’m with PG&E.” And he said, “Well, I liked your story.” And then he went into his press conference and Michelle took over and she’s the one who actually mentioned my story. It was a little nerve wracking in front of the media.

What does it mean to you to see that PG&E is making such an effort to hire veterans? Is that unusual for companies?

In the past it was. Now companies are starting to see the benefits of hiring veterans. What a veteran brings to the table is so much more now. We’re trained to think, we’re trained to listen, we’re trained to lead. You hire a vet and you’re getting so much more out of the gate. It’s proven that vets can learn, we can adapt and we can work well with others. Those skills of leadership are ingrained in you in the military.

Erick Varela, pictured with wife Katey at the recent Toyota/Save Mart 350 in Sonoma, says he and other veterans don't want handouts but opportunities to work. (Photo by David Kligman.)

What do you hope race fans take away from all that PG&E is doing to help veterans?

I hope they take away that we’re doing great things in our community. We’re not just the power company. We have people who volunteer non-stop. As a company, we’re hiring vets. We’re sponsoring community projects. We’re not just this big nameless corporation. We’re your neighbor, your sons, your daughters, all of us. We do great things and it’s time we get noticed for that.

When you were homeless did you ever think you would pull out of that situation to the degree that you have?

You know, as a veteran you always fight. They always tell you in the military, “It’s not the size of the dog. It’s the fight in the dog.” And it’s true, you know? You get down and out but I’m not looking for a handout and neither are my vet buddies. We just want the opportunity. Just give us a chance. You always push, you always push and next thing you know you’re here.

How fast are you going to go in this hot lap today?

They’re telling us about 110, 120 miles an hour. It’s going to be exciting. You can’t do that in a PG&E truck.

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