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ECC job-training program shows unemployed adults, high-school dropouts that ‘nothing is impossible’

Joel Perez 25 Elgis an Accelerating Opportunity Instructor ElgCommunity College. | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

Joel Perez, 25, of Elgin is an Accelerating Opportunity Instructor at Elgin Community College. | Brian O'Mahoney/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 9, 2014 6:25AM



ELGIN — One side of Joel Perez’s business card shows a sunrise bursting through heavy clouds above the words “Nothing Is Impossible.”

That could be the motto of a program at Elgin Community College called Accelerating Opportunity, which aims in just one year to prepare unemployed adults, high-school dropouts and limited-English-speakers for some comparatively high-paid, high-skills jobs. And those are jobs that even in the present economic malaise often go begging for lack of job applicants who have the right training.

There can be no better example of that motto’s truth than Perez’s own life. Three years ago, the 25-year-old Elgin native was a high-school dropout with a criminal record and a failing marriage, working at a job clearing junk from foreclosed houses. Today, he works 40 to 60 hours a week in a comparatively high-paying factory position. And he teaches one of the Accelerating Opportunity Program’s classes himself.

After dropping out of high school, getting a girlfriend pregnant and being cast out of his parents’ home, he had been arrested for drunken driving and then for possession of marijuana.

“I had become very good at being a failure,” Perez says.

What he described as a succession of “dead-end” restaurant and yard-work jobs didn’t offer any future, or enough current cash to support his estranged wife and what soon would be two daughters.

The turning point

What Perez describes as “the big turning point of my life” came in 2010, when he was the age when many of his original cohorts from Elgin High were graduating from college. Ordered to undergo counseling because of the criminal charges, he met with the pastor of The Church on the Rock in Huntley. When Perez mentioned that he loved to read, the pastor recommended some books — some inspirational, some secular, some found inside the Bible.

Perez read them all, decided to give his life to Christ and was baptized.

Believing not only in Jesus but in himself now, Perez says, he decided to aim higher on the career ladder. He enrolled at ECC and began working toward a GED certificate.

About the same time, ECC officials decided to address both the soaring unemployment rate and local companies’ cries for more trained employees. In spring semester of 2012, the college became one of eight in Illinois to experiment with something called the Accelerated Opportunity Program. This aims to give both job skills and life skills to unemployed or under-employed adults who have limited education, are learning English as a Second Language, or lack basic skills in reading and math.

At first the program aimed to qualify them for a vocational certificate in either welding or running factory machines that use computer-numeric controls (CNC) after just one year of study. The program later expanded to include training in being a dental aide or doing HVAC repair and installation.

Besides taking the technical courses, each student is enrolled in courses teaching math, reading, writing and English related to their field. They also must agree to meet with a counselor and a support group of other AOP students to learn such things as how to apply for and interview for jobs.

Perez, who said he always has been interested in making things, decided the CNC program would be for him.

Succeeding at last

Perez proved to be a star pupil. Even before he graduated a year ago, he had landed a manufacturing job with a local company. And now he teaches one of the shop courses in which he was a student just four semesters ago.

Today, a typical weekday for him begins with attending an ECC academic class from 10 a.m. to noon; teaching first-semester AOP students how to create metal parts using manual lathes and drills from 12:30 to 3 p.m.; then working from 4 p.m. until 1 a.m. at the nearby Haumiller Engineering plant. At Haumiller, Perez uses his computer-assisted-manufacturing skills to help make industrial machinery that will be used by Haumiller’s client companies to do things like filling pens with ink.

Perez’s weekends involve spending time with his 6- and 3-year-old daughters, working as a tattoo artist, writing and performing Christian rap music, and attending worship services.

“I don’t have much time left over,” Perez notes.

Diverse students

Perez said the typical student in his current nine-person CNC class is a male in his 20s or 30s.

“A lot are coming from other industries. We have construction workers who are tired of being laid off every winter. We have people who have worked in factories alongside CNC workers and want to increase their skills so they can do that job. The starting salary for people in CNC is $15 to $18 an hour, and if you learn programming, too, it can be $20 or $25 an hour.”

Thursday afternoon in ECC’s computerized-manufacturing lab found several students machining their final exam in Perez’s class — to make a complex-shaped clamp from slugs of steel and brass.

Working at a lathe, 19-year-old Streamwood High graduate Tomisz Misczcak said his family came to the U.S. from Poland just four years ago. Speaking in thickly accented English, he said he still lives with his parents and three sisters in Bartlett but hopes to get a factory job that will make him independent.

Eric Saldana of Elgin is a 38-year-old father of three who says he lived in Mexico from age 3 to age 18 and has limited education. He said he had worked as a maintenance man at an Elgin factory but has been unemployed since the whole plant closed a year ago. His family has been subsisting on unemployment benefits just half as big as his previous paychecks, plus what his wife earns in a human resources job.

Arriving for class Thursday, Saldana was exultant as he told Perez he has a job interview lined up at a factory in Bloomingdale.

One of just two female students in the program’s CNC class, 47-year-old Nelly Montes of Gilberts, said she came to the U.S. from Mexico 20 years ago but never learned much English. She said she held low-skill, low-paying factory jobs for almost all of that time while raising her children. But most of the workers alongside her also spoke Spanish, she said, so she didn’t need to learn the new language.

That changed, Montes said, when the slumping economy forced her last factory to close. After a year and a half on the unemployment line, competing against people who do speak fluent English, she went to ECC to learn better English. Her teachers suggested she also get into the Accelerated Opportunity Program.

Manuel Lea, 32, of Carpentersville, told a similar tale. Laid off from his job as a forklift driver because of the economy, this Mexican-American father of two (with another baby on the way) said he originally came to ECC to learn English as a Second Language.

The leader of the CNC support group, Divya Ajinth, is an ECC math teacher who herself immigrated to the U.S. from India just 10 years ago.

Uncertain future

Peggy Heinrich, the college’s dean of adult education, said the project seems to be succeeding but faces uncertain financing.

She said 79 ECC students have participated so far. Of 38 who have been in the program long enough to graduate, 29 have graduated with a Basic Vocational Certificate, and 20 of those are now employed in the field they studied.

Heinrich said students in the program also have proved to be much more likely to graduate than students who begin CNC, dental assisting or welding classes but are not part of Accelerated Opportunity. HVAC has not been part of the program long enough to measure that.

In its current “initiative” form in just four states and just eight Illinois colleges, Heinrich said, Accelerated Opportunity has been subsidized by grants from various charities and governmental projects, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. But that funding runs out in September 2014.

Addressing the ECC Board of Trustees recently, Heinrich said the college should consider making the program a permanent part of ECC’s offerings and expanding it to cover more job fields.

Perez himself, meanwhile, hopes to go on to at least a bachelor’s degree and eventually become an industrial arts teacher. Or perhaps he will start his own manufacturing business.

“I came to ECC for an education but it turned out to be more like a hospital. It gave me a new life,” Perez said. “Machinery gave me a new life and it would be my joy to work with other people in the position I was in three years ago, to do the same for them.”



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