A short time ago, Erick Varela’s journey from military service in Iraq to being introduced at the White House by Michelle Obama would have been more than implausible.
First Lady Obama recognized Varela, a Manteca resident, a member of Vacaville Local 1245 of the International Brotherhoo d of Electrical Workers and an apprentice at Pacific Gas and Electric Co., for successfully completing a course in August 2009 designed to prepare military veterans for entry-level utility industry jobs. He is now an apprentice electrician in Tracy.
The two-tour combat veteran who had seen hard times at home, was filled with gratitude for his employer and his union at the April 30 press conference. And Varela was glad that the Joining Forces initiative, launched by the First Lady and Vice President Joe Biden’s wife, Jill, to encourage employers to train 100,000 veterans for jobs in 2013, was showing that veterans are a “huge advantage for their leadership, ability to think and listen, adapt and overcome obstacles.”
From 2002 to 2008, Varela served as a non-commissioned officer in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division in Iraq. But after six years, things changed on the home front. The union journeyman heavy equipment operator returned to a construction market that had crashed.
“I joined the military to serve my country like members of my family, then come home and go to work,” said Varela. But after six years away, “the dispatcher at Operating Engineers Local 3 told me I should consider looking for another job.”
For a time, he operated equipment for a nonunion company in Utah, then returned to California, but couldn’t find steady work. Things got worse.
Varela and his wife, Katey, alternated between living with his father and living in their car in San Francisco. They sent one of their daughters to live with her grandparents in Utah.
Varela told PG&E’s online magazine, Currents, “Back in Iraq, I had a purpose. I felt worse being homeless. It made me feel like a failure.”
Experienced in working with natural gas, Varela filled out an application and was accepted by PG&E’s PowerPathway, which places veterans in the company’s Bridge to Utility Worker training programs.
“The program gave me general information, knowledge and skill to be an entry-level worker. And, by attending classes with other veterans, it was easier to make a transition in careers,” says Varela.
PG&E had no immediate openings upon Varela’s graduation from the 16-week program, but the company sent his resume to one of its contractors, All Day Electric, a Local 1245 signatory.
Varela was hired and quickly took responsibility for a crew of eight. After demonstrating his effectiveness, he was sent to the company’s parent firm, where he became a controller/scheduler supervising eight to nine crews of up to six workers and meeting with city officials to keep them abreast of utility work being performed in their jurisdictions.
“You pick up so much from the military,” said Varela. “I lead from the front. I never ask my crews to do something I wouldn’t. The military teaches you to adapt and find different ways to reach an outcome, to listen to your guys and push forward.”
It’s pretty mundane work, he says, compared to being in battle, getting shot at and seeing buddies die.
“Vets don’t want a handout; they want a hand up,” said Varela, who entered his apprenticeship program in 2011 and last year accompanied PG&E CEO Tony Earley to a bipartisan forum to discuss job prospects for veterans and to encourage federal funding of work force training programs like PowerPathway.
“It (PowerPathway) opens so many doors and it’s free, which is amazing,” said Varela, who attended the White House event with PG&E’s vice president for human resources, John Simon. “It’s why we need government funding to get more classes going, to spread it to other states and industries, not just the utilities.”
Today, Varela is nearly debt-free and hoping to buy a house in the San Joaquin Valley for himself, his wife, and their four children: daughters Blake, Brooklyn and Kelsey, and son Chase, who was born in July. He has time and money to hunt and savor his good fortune. But his thoughts often turn to the obstacles facing other veterans.
“I’m one of the lucky vets, but there are still a lot of struggling veteran families out there,” says Varela, who keeps in touch with a few of his former comrades. Some are doing well; others have had problems finding work.
“I really enjoy the opportunity to raise awareness about all the work PG&E is doing to support our vets,” he said. “I would love to be able to work with PG&E and Local 1245 to start a charity for local military families. There are still steps we can make to not only hire vets, but hopefully change their lives for the better.”