Landing a good union job in Chicago often requires having a family member who is in the trades or at least knowing someone who has some pull in the industry. For a select and important few, that process has been simplified to have only one requirement: be a military veteran.
The Gas Utility Workers Training Program (GUWTP), a $3.5 million project that has support from People's Gas and the Utility Workers Union of America, aims to put veterans to work in the gas industry, helping them earn their Gas Utility Worker Advance Certification and giving them a leg-up into a career that is known for its generous benefits and stable source of income.
The program sponsors certification training for classes of about 25 veterans, who learn under instructors and supervisors at Dawson Technical Institute on Chicago's south side. Upon graduation, the veterans are funneled directly into a career in the city's gas industry at People's Gas, where they work as paid interns.
GUWTP graduated its first class of 21 veterans on Oct. 12. All of them were given a year-long membership in The American Legion, paid for by Women for Wounded Warriors . The graduates all became members of the historic People's Gas Post 336 in Chicago.
"What this (program) is going to do is allow for these students to get good paying jobs with benefits at People's Gas," said Richard Passarelli, a chairman for the Utility Union Workers of America. "It's a good job that could sustain a family and allow someone to live the American dream. We're giving back to a community that has done so much for us."
Graduates leave the sixth-month program qualified and trained to work in all areas of the natural gas industry. The program also gives them 52 credit hours toward an associate's degree.
The opportunities that the program provides are especially valuable to young veterans like Bret Paquette, who has been searching for a career since he left the Marines in 2010.
"I have a college degree," Paquette said. "Even with that, I couldn't find anything I wanted to do. Sitting in an office wasn't for me. Getting out and using my hands was more my style."
Paquette and his classmates will start their one-month internship at People's Gas immediately. They will have an opportunity to stay on with the company on a permanent basis or move into other areas of the industry.
Their employment makes them eligible for membership in Post 336 - a post exclusive to People's Gas employees. The post, which receives a yearly subsidy check from People's Gas, was once booming with membership in the 1940s, as veterans returned home from war to work at the gas company.
Much has changed since Post 336's heyday. It has lost the bulk of its membership and is ready for the influx of new members.
"When I was commander in 1972, I had something like 1,100 members. Now we're down to under 200," said Joseph Locascio, Post 336 adjutant. "It's great for the post, and it's great for these veterans (joining the post)... Being a veteran, you always have a camaraderie with them."
The Legion also played a role in arranging and finding veterans to attend the GUWTP. Representatives from the Department of Illinois and Past National Commander Marty Connatser helped enlist veterans for the program and will continue to provide them employment assistance after their graduation. Currently, two more cohorts of veterans are working their way through the program. They're set to graduate later this year.
Connatser, Locascio and other members of Post 336 were on hand at the Oct. 12 graduation ceremony, shaking each graduates' hand in congratulations and welcoming them to the Legion.
"This is a program that costs them nothing and gets them certified. It pays a nice living and gives them the background and a leg-up toward employment," Connatser said. "That's 21 veterans that have a way to provide for themselves and their families in the future. You can't put a dollar value on that."
Admittedly, some of the younger veterans who graduated weren't familiar with the Legion, but they expressed enthusiasm about becoming members of the organization.
Raymond Rau, a 25-year-old Army veteran, was particularly happy to hear that his dues would be paid for a year. He was already a member and glad to hear that he now has a post where he can see some familiar faces.
"I joined with my dad and grandfather a long time ago," he said. "I've been to a few Thanksgiving dinners at the post. I didn't really know anyone there, but I guess I will know all these guys at my post now."
Ultimately, though, the Legion is involved because of the valuable employment opportunities the program can provide to veterans. Connatser and other representatives from the organization will continue to help find veterans to attend and assist those who graduate.
"They're going to be certified at the end of this program," Connatser said. "It's a great outreach. It's going to help a lot of young people."