Demand is strong for trained workers who can scramble up cell towers to upgrade and maintain equipment. A 'godsend' of a program trains ex-offenders to fill the role.
After four years in prison, Antonio Crum tried to start his life anew. He married, focused on fatherhood and got a degree in electrical engineering at a local trade school.
Friends helped get him jobs here and there — most recently as a part-time driver for an outpatient surgical center — but his own efforts to find stable work went nowhere, he said.
“People were telling me it doesn’t matter how many years ago (my crime) was; they couldn’t trust me,” said Crum, 35, who was released from the Illinois Department of Corrections in 2008 after serving time on a burglary conviction.
“It almost makes you want to go back to what you used to do.”
But instead of falling backward, Crum seized a chance to climb — sometimes to stomach-flipping 100-foot heights.
Crum is part of the inaugural class of the Wireless Field Engineer Training Program, a collaboration between the Chicago-based nonprofit Safer Foundation and a Chicago cell tower site development contractor who hopes to marry his industry’s need for skilled workers with the ex-offender population’s need for good-paying jobs.
“It’s not a noble venture on my part,” said Duane Gilmore, chief operating officer at Tower-MTM, the employer partner in the program. “It is just a smart business move for me to find smart, good people and put them through their paces.”
The class of eight, which graduated from the 12-week program in late February in a quiet ceremony in downtown Chicago, offers a glimpse of the potential for what Gilmore calls an “upside so high that it is scary.”
As wireless technologies advance, data usage skyrockets and the 70 percent of Americans who own smartphones expect connectivity wherever they are, demand is strong for trained workers who can scramble up cell towers to upgrade and maintain equipment.
Supply is weaker, Gilmore said. A contractor for wireless carriers, Gilmore said he has flown in trained workers he knew from Latin America to take jobs because there weren’t enough people domestically with the proper skill sets.
While the unemployment rate of those with criminal records is not tracked, they face well-documented employment challenges that can have dangerous and expensive consequences.
By partnering with Safer Foundation, which helps people with criminal records prepare for employment, Gilmore hopes to give those with records a leg up while saving companies the time and cost of training workers themselves. He plans to offer apprenticeships to each of the graduates through his own contracts and is in talks to get fellow tower builders on board as well.
“We need to find ways to not screen people out, but to include them,” said Gilmore, who is also recruiting military veterans to the program.
Apprentices will start at $15 an hour, move to $19 after six months and to $23 after a year. Within two to three years, the hourly wage could reach $35, which is more than $70,000 annually for full-time work.
Trainees received 15 federal or industry certifications that are both portable and stackable, Gilmore said, allowing them to work a variety of jobs almost anywhere.
“It’s an opportunity for our clients, many of whom are coming out of poverty, to go into a growing field, with a good middle-class wage, with further advancement opportunities,” said Victor Dickson, president and CEO of the Safer Foundation, which paid the bulk of the cost of the training program while Gilmore paid the rest.
Quentin Jackson called the program “a godsend.”
Jackson, 42, avoided much of the gang trouble that snagged his friends while growing up in public housing developments on the West Side and several South Side neighborhoods. “Always a schoolboy,” thanks to the influence of his mom and good teachers, Jackson went to college in North Carolina with a partial scholarship to play the trumpet.
When school got too expensive, Jackson left and eventually started a landscaping business, got married and had a daughter. But his life fell apart when, he said, he was betrayed by a business partner who bought equipment with a stolen credit card and ensured that he took the fall.
Jackson was convicted of felony obtaining property under false pretenses and was ordered to pay $29,000 in restitution and spend five years on probation.
As his marriage fell apart, Jackson returned to Chicago to live with his mother and struggled to find a job. He applied for openings in office mailrooms and hospital maintenance but never got calls back. He went to temp agencies and got put on “some of the worst assignments” at warehouses or slaughterhouses.
When Safer told him he was eligible for the tower technician program, Jackson was game to try but didn’t think it would be a career for him. The syllabus was unfamiliar and overwhelming: construction drawing, introduction to power tools, construction math, rigging, material handling, fiber optics. Five days a week, he left home before dawn to pile into a van with his classmates, traveling long distances for instruction and returning home well after dark.
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Jackson ended up being a top student and the class’s unofficial morale booster.
“It is one thing to preach hard work and dedication,” Jackson said. “But for (my daughter) to actually see me going through it on my own, it makes things worthwhile.”
The tower technician program is part of the Safer Demand Skills Collaborative, an employer-driven initiative that reflects a broader push in the workforce development field to better match training to market needs.
The collaborative trains clients in middle-skill jobs, which are those that require education beyond high school, but not a college degree, in high-growth industries including technology, manufacturing, hospitality, transportation and health care.
Steve Wilder, president and COO of the Communication Industry Training and Certification Academy, which provided the trainers for the cell tower program, said he was thrilled to be involved in giving trainees a second chance.
Wilder doesn’t anticipate resistance from employers to hiring ex-offenders. He recalls that one tower erector at a recent wireless industry conference told him his workforce is one-third ex-offenders and they are his best employees.
“If there was one common message at the conference it was: We need good people; we need qualified people,” said Wilder, whose company is based in Bourbonnais, Ill. Climbing towers “is a young kids’ game,” hard on the legs and joints, so there will be continued demand for new workers, he added.
It is also dangerous. In response to 13 fatal falls in 2013 and 12 in 2014, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration partnered with the Federal Communications Commission to improve safety. Last year, there were three tower-related deaths, according to OSHA, which estimates the tower industry has 10,000 to 20,000 workers.
With projections for data demand “astronomical” and each generation of technology requiring new equipment, the need for workers and diverse skill sets should grow, said Todd Schlekeway, executive director of the National Association of Tower Erectors.
In addition, in an effort to free up airwaves for wireless broadband use, the FCC recently held an unprecedented “incentive auction,” in which it bid on airwaves from broadcasters and simultaneously sells them forward to wireless phone carriers, potentially creating another market for the wireless workforce if it has to retrofit taller broadcast towers, he said.
The career is not for everyone, least of all those with a fear of heights. Trainees in Safer’s tower technician program climbed 40- to 100-foot cell towers and eventually will encounter up to 250-foot-tall towers, Gilmore said.
He called his graduates “a phenomenal group of guys who worked their tails off” during the rigorous program, which entailed 440 classroom hours. Crum, Gilmore recalls, struggled with math, and would come in early and stay late on math days for extra study.
Gilmore also remembers Crum telling him during his interview, when asked why he wanted to participate in the program, that it was not for him, but for his family.
“He said, ‘I want them to see me get up and go to work,’” Gilmore said.
The program paid a stipend of $200 a week and required a full-time commitment, Gilmore said.
Some participants even left good jobs for the chance to earn more in the growing field.
Prentice Mason, 38, was working as a restaurant manager, and getting raises, but quit to join the program. He said he had always been interested in telecommunications and hopes to become a trainer himself.
His wife, Alisa, who attended the graduation with their 10-year-old son, Christian, said she was excited by the potential, but nervous.
“Right now it’s one income,” said Alisa Mason, who is an office manager at a construction company. “I’m having faith that the other income is going to be there.”