Ready to work, needing a break

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By Deb Quantock McCarey

Contributing reporter/Nature blogger

Brandon Darbonne, now 30, spent 6½ years in East Moline Correctional Center for a robbery conviction. Upon his release in August 2010, he was ready to move on and start working again.

But that wasn't so easy.

"I have a background, and since my release, I have actually had three jobs in three years because the employers pretty much only kept me on to get the tax credits," says Darbonne, who in prison earned associate degrees in auto mechanics and construction operations.

His first post-prison break came in late spring while attending a community meeting at Bethel New Life, 1140 N. Lamon Ave., Chicago. That is when Darbonne was asked if he was interested in becoming one of 18 individuals in the first cohort of BNL's latest initiative, the Advanced Manufacturing Training Program.

"You don't have to have a high school diploma or a GED; we only require that you pass a drug screening, be 18 years old, and have a desire to complete the program," Bethel New Life Workforce Development Director Donna Germany says.

So several months ago Darbonne "signed on" to be one of the low-wage workers, ex-offenders, and first-time Chicago job seekers who are willing to work overtime to learn a new skillset in a trending sector of the job market.

"For the first 2-3 months, we did job readiness training at the Bethel New Life campus to learn how to better prepare ourselves for interviews," he says. "We learned how to write up resumes and learned the things you need to effectively get an interview, and then a job."

Germany adds that once participants gain the necessary academic skills, they graduate into a 16-week Advanced Manufacturing career training course administered by an expert with more than 40 years in the industry and conducted at Breaking Ground, a nonprofit that is collaborating with them in the venture.

"Everybody is looking at where our jobs are going to start coming from in this economy, and advanced manufacturing, at least in the Midwest, seems to be where the jobs are coming back. In that field, there are always more jobs than skilled workers to fill them," says Germany, explaining why her agency has gotten into the business of putting people back to work.

Graduates of the course earn a pair of certificates that qualify them for positions in quality control, inspection, mill operator, lathe operator and process engineering, as well as production control, tool and die, shipping-and-receiving inspection, CNC (computerized numerical control) operator and CNC setup. Germany said the starting wage for the jobs averages around $12.50-$14 per hour.

"Many of the students will have jobs waiting for them before they graduate," Germany says. "Everyone has to work really hard and have the desire to succeed. Our goal for Brandon is to receive all the certifications he needs, and then we can be giving him a going-away party, when he and his family are moving back to his home state of Louisiana to start a new life."

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