Johnathan Elam knew that if he wanted a better life for his son, he was going to have to make a change.
Johnathan was a seasonal laborer accustomed to spending the slower time in his work schedule with his family. But this year, he spent that time in the classroom studying, with one goal in mind: “I’m doing this for him,” Johnathan said, referring to his 18-month-old son.
Johnathan enrolled in Access for All, a nine-week skilled trades pre-apprenticeship course, with hopes of becoming an operating engineer — a career that pays well and offers opportunities to advance.
The course is funded in part by United Way for Southeastern Michigan, along with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, JPMorgan Chase and PNC. In addition to funding the program, United Way added its expertise in working with the community to optimize the curriculum for the needs of students in order to help them succeed. Our involvement also elicited support from other organizations and stakeholders.
While Johnathan joined the class to get an education, he also gained a family.
“We had a brotherhood from day one,” he said of his classmates. “If anybody needs help, we all pitch in and help each other. I feel like I’ve known them my whole life, so I treat them like my brothers and my sister.”
Classmates rarely saw Johnathan without a smile, but when it came to class time, he was all business, focusing on lectures and feverishly jotting down notes. Instructors pass along a lot of knowledge over the course of nine 40-hour weeks, and a lapse in focus can be detrimental.
That in-class focus paid off. Johnathan didn’t just walk across the stage to get his certificate — he also stood behind a podium and, with a grin from ear to ear, addressed the audience of his peers, instructors and construction industry stakeholders. His demeanor turned serious when he said, “We’re excited, we’re ready to work and we won’t let you down.”
As attendees enjoyed a post-ceremony spread of appetizers and desserts, Johnathan proudly discussed his accomplishment. His family was there to share the moment with him.
“My family, they are so proud of me,” Johnathan said. “I took everything and put it to the side so I could pursue what basically is my dream. They saw the ambition I had to go through this course. They love it.
After graduation, Johnathan was hired as an operator at RBV Construction. An operator’s job duties can include operating excavators, front loaders, bulldozers and skid steers, cleaning and preparing worksites, removing concrete, excavating trenches and leveling land.
“Heavy equipment — that’s my passion,” Johnathan said. “I love operating equipment. After laboring for two years and getting on some of the equipment, that gave me the drive to want to enhance my knowledge on other operating equipment.”
Jonathan has also been named to the steering committee for a peer-to-peer mentoring program that Access for All will implement this fall.
Less than five months after graduation, two-thirds of Johnathan’s winter cohort had already landed jobs in the construction industry as laborers, operators, sheet metal workers and bricklayers. Their average wage was about $18 an hour as of late August. Eighty-six percent of graduates were employed in some capacity.
Johnathan credits the course’s instructors — JoAnn Bailey, Justin Proch and Tyrese West — with helping students succeed.
“When you’ve got somebody that’s willing to help you and push you, you’ve got to take advantage,” he said.
Those instructors are passionate about the students and the program.
“We’re trying to get the students to really know who they are and what their skillsets are,” JoAnn said. In addition, she said the hands-on experience helps students learn what field they want to pursue.
The dedication shown by the students impressed Tyrese.
“Three or four students work midnights, so they get off work and come straight here,” he said. “They still make it here and complete all their assignments. When they go into a trade, they’ll be just as dedicated but it won’t be as difficult because they won’t have to work full time and go to school.”
That puts families like Johnathan’s on the fast track to a new life.
“Graduation means a lot for me and my family,” he said. “I sacrificed a lot of time with them, but they still pushed me. They let me know they’re very proud of me. We can live better and accomplish more things, spend more time together, take more vacations, purchase a house and things like that.”
“It feels amazing. This is a dream come true.”