CHAMPAIGN — A program aimed at boosting the number of women, minorities and disadvantaged people working on state highway construction projects is now accepting participants for its next session.
Orientation for the program, held at Parkland College, will begin the week of Jan. 9. Classes start the week of Feb. 13 and will run for 10 weeks.
The Highway Construction Careers Training Program, funded by the Illinois Department of Transportation and administered by the Illinois Community College Board, is open to people 18 years and older with a high school diploma or GED who want to work in the construction trades.
The aim of the program is to provide training in a variety of skills — from brushing up on math to driving a forklift — for people who eventually will work on highway construction projects across Illinois.
"The goal is to get them into an apprentice program with one of the trade unions," said R.J. Rowland, the program's manager at Parkland College. IDOT funds training programs at other community colleges throughout the state, including Lake Land College in Mattoon, Kankakee Community College in Kankakee and several others.
The first class at Parkland began in September 2010, and since then, about 56 students have gone through the program, Rowland said.
Of the 56 who have graduated from Parkland's program, 11 have received placements, including in apprentice programs with local unions.
"The big problem so far has been the economy. But a lot of unions now are starting to take apprentices again," Rowland said.
One graduate of the program was unemployed from a food distribution company and now is an electrician's apprentice earning about $18 an hour, with the potential to earn much more that once he becomes an journeyman, Rowland said.
"One student was living at Restoration Urban Ministries when he was in the program. It's nice to see him be able to pick himself up," Rowland said.
The majority of participants are minorities and women and occasionally white men who have been out of work, Rowland said.
"It's up to them to tell me why they're disadvantaged," he said.
Participants learn life skills such as how to get along with people, applying and interviewing for a job. They take refresher courses in math, first aid, equipment training and more.
"It's intense," Rowland said.
A few students have dropped out or have been expelled for various reasons, including failing a drug test or for poor attendance.
The classes run from 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday with time for lunch.
"They really come a long way by the end of the class. When they get into an apprenticeship, (the union) will teach them what they need to know," he said.
By the time the program ends, the student will end up with 11 certifications.
In fall of 2010, Greg Porter of Champaign spent his days participating in the classes, learning how to work a jackhammer, lay concrete and invest money, while at night he worked at Plastipak. He's now earning much more as an apprentice with the laborers' union and is working toward becoming a journeyman.
"It's changed my life," he said of the program. "It gave me the tools to succeed. I have a career now. Maybe one day I can become my own contractor," Porter said.
The program is free — IDOT covers all costs, Rowland said, including pens, pencils, backpacks and more.
More information is available at http://bit.ly/vKeJ98 .