Posted on January 31, 2014

VIDEO: At White House, Veteran Shares His Story of Struggle from Unemployment to PG&E Career

WASHINGTON  The compelling, personal story of a PG&E apprentice electrician earned him a singular honor — introducing the president of the United States at a White House event today (Jan. 31) on long-term unemployment.

Erick Varela was a U.S. Army combat infantryman in Iraq, He struggled to find work when he returned to civilian life and even was homeless. Flanked by President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Varela recounted his discouragement with unemployment despite his military skills, including operating heavy equipment.

With Vice President Joe Biden and President Obama watching, PG&E's Erick Varela describes how he went from homeless to a career with PG&E. (Photo from www.whitehouse.gov.)

“I was motivated to work,” Varela said. “And I wanted to work. And I knew I could contribute to society like I had in the military, but I felt helpless, lost and more importantly a disappointment and failure to my family.”

His life changed when PG&E accepted him for its PowerPathway Bridge to Utility Worker program and in 2010 hired him as an apprentice electrician in Eureka. Varela, who last April represented PG&E at the White House in a forum on job prospects for veterans in the utility industry, thanked the utility for a taking a chance on him and others who are unemployed.

“The work PG&E provided restored my purpose in life and they gave me a sense of direction once again,” he said.

PG&E announces PowerPathway program in Fresno region

Following the event, PG&E announced its commitment to addressing challenges faced by the long-term unemployed and veteran populations. In 2014, PG&E will build on its PowerPathway workforce development program by:

  • Conducting two PowerPathway workforce development programs in California’s Fresno region for the long-term unemployed, focusing on long-term unemployed veterans.
  • Providing 48 individuals with resume building and interview skills, technical training, education and other transferrable skills that can be used to help obtain a job in the skilled craft and utility industry.

Erick Varela served in the U.S. Army, but struggled to find work when he returned to civilian life. (Photo by Melissa Lavinson.)

At the event, PG&E committed to creating a local awareness campaign and exploring the ability to replicate the success of PowerPathway by working with state and federal utility organizations, including the California Energy and Utility Workforce Consortia and the Center for Energy Workforce Development.

Following Varela’s remarks, Obama thanked the PG&E employee for sharing his story and for serving his country.

“I hope that listening to Erick here everybody recognizes what a great success story this is but also the notion that somebody with this kind of skill and talent was having difficulty finding a job,” Obama said. “It indicates the challenge that we face.”

PG&E Chairman, CEO and President Tony Earley, a former U.S. Navy officer, is committed to creating career paths for the long-term unemployed and veterans. He said unemployment rates are as high as 29 percent for young veterans, far higher than those for other Americans out of work.

“We are pleased to have PG&E sign on to the president’s initiative today,” Earley said. “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.”

Program produces skilled workers for new energy jobs

PowerPathway works with educators to lay the foundation for developing new training and credentialing courses aimed at producing skilled workers needed for new energy jobs of the future.

PG&E PowerPathway graduates show off their pole-climbing skills. (Currents Archive Photo.)

In 2014, these efforts will be focused on the greater Fresno area, which continues to experience unemployment rates above the state and national average. In August 2013, about 52,400 Fresno County residents were out of work and seeking jobs. In 2016, the Fresno metro region unemployment rate is forecast to be 10.7 percent, much higher than current projections for the rest of California.

The energy and transportation industry represents about 10 percent of all employment opportunities in the Fresno region, with many of these jobs requiring specialized skills and education, such as those provided by PowerPathway. The program provides the education and skills training necessary to support individuals seeking not only jobs, but careers in the energy sector.

PowerPathway was launched in 2008 in collaboration with local community colleges. As of 2013, PG&E has filled 211 vacancies with veterans, 146 of which were outside hires or about seven percent of the utility’s total external hires.

In addition to supporting veterans with jobs, PG&E established a Veterans Employee Resource Group in 2011 designed to support PG&E employees with military experience. More than 700 employees have since joined. PG&E was also named one of the top 100 military-friendly employers by G.I. Jobs Magazine, the third time the utility has been included in the annual rankings. A video providing an overview of PowerPathway is available on YouTube.

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