by Genoa Barrow, California Black Media
Oakland – He was an out of work party promoter and she was a single mother, living in a hotel room with a young son. Both say a job-training program run by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) gave them the power to change the course of their lives.
Shawn Tate and Shimia Buie are African American graduates of the highly competitive PowerPathway™ Program, which exists to “train the next generation of utility workers.” Tate and Buie participated in Oakland, where PG&E partners with the Cypress Mandela Training Center, which offers a 16-week pre-apprentice construction program that serves as a preliminary to PowerPathway™.
“I knew people that came there and didn’t even know how to read or do math well, but when they graduated, they knew how to do math, read blueprints and do surveys,” Tate shared.
“You name it, they teach it to you there. Anybody that’s serious about getting their life on track, there are people that’ll help you. I’m a living testament that it can be done,” he continued.
After completing the construction course, some participants are selected for the PowerPathway™ Program, which includes hands-on work in Electricor Gas Operations, pre-employment test preparation, safety certifications and help in resume building and developing interview skills.
Both the 16-week Cypress Mandela program and eight-week PowerPathway™ Program are unpaid. Participants of Cypress Mandela have to pay for their own uniforms and monthly drug testing. If the student is enrolled in PowerPathway™, their screening, uniform and boots are paid for by PG&E. Additionally, completion of the PowerPathway™ Program does not guarantee employment with PG&E. It’s a leap of faith students are willing to take, even though most are out of work or experiencing chronic unemployment.
“I really wanted it,” said Tate, who graduated in 2014.
Buie, a mental health worker, was tired of toiling away at low-end, minimum wage jobs and was going through a “rough patch” after losing her home in Alameda to a fire.
“One of the first questions they asked me during the interview (for both Cypress Mandela and PowerPathway™) was, ‘Why do you think you belong in this program?’ I told them, ‘If this training program is serious about changing lives, put me in it and watch a life be changed’ and that’s exactly what it’s done for me,” said the 2016 graduate.
Tate didn’t immediately get hired after graduation, but did land a temporary job with the company as a general construction hydro utility worker with the IBEW 1245 Hiring Hall, also known as a GC Hydro. The job was three hours away from his home in Oakland and his wife was pregnant with twins at the time.
“I’d leave on Sunday and not come back until Friday,” Tate shared.
As a GC Hydro, Tate worked at substations and powerhouses that control power and create energy that is distributed to different grids and then on to customers. He also built dams and bridges and served on a helicopter detail, surveying flumes that brought water to powerhouses. He was later hired onto a general construction crew full time with PG&E.
“You’re a grunt worker, you’re doing all of the digging and shoveling, but I was just happy to even be hired on permanently with the company, so I didn’t mind the hard work,” he said.
Tate later became a gas compliance representative, a job that required less travel and came with a $12 pay increase.
“I wasn’t complaining at $24, but I just had some ambition and I’m one of those guys that talks to people, I pay attention, I ask questions. I’m fine with being blessed and having a job, but I’m also going to strive and if I know there’s more out there, I’m going to definitely try and excel,” Tate said.
Tate took his current position as a rotating supervisor in November 2017. He has 20 employees who report directly to him and a budget of a few million dollars. He plans to go into government relations with PG&E. The company, he says, will pay for him to go back to college and finish his degree in communications.
“I’ve had jobs before and made money and I worked for myself for a long time, but my job now, hands down this is one of the top companies to work for. They pay you good, I’ve got my own company truck, company credit cards. It’s unbelievable actually. I make over $150,000 a year, and it has impacted my life tremendously,” Tate said.
Buie’s path to full-time employment with PG&E has been as curved as Tate’s, having initially failed a test for entry-level work, but later passing it with the help of fellow PowerPathway™ students and staffers, landing a paid internship with the company and then being hired as a utility worker on its electric side. Today, she works at a facility that provides electricity to parts of San Francisco and Daly City. From 6:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. she’s digging ditches and running underground cables. It’s physical work, but Buie is reaping the rewards.
“I’ve come a long way from that hotel room,” she said.
“I was able to establish credit. I was able to basically live comfortably without wondering where our next meal was coming from and how the bills were going to get paid. My son is now 20 years old; I was able to put money away for him to be in college and invest in my future,” Buie continued.
She plans to reach electrician status and then a supervisor. Buie calls PowerPathway™ “one of the best programs in Oakland right now.”
According to PG&E spokesperson Toni Tony Khing, nearly 95 percent Cypress Mandela’s 148 graduates have been hired by PG&E and other utilities and companies such as East Bay Municipal Utility District, AT&T, Comcast, BART and CalTrans.
The PowerPathway Program boasts an overall diversity rate of 88 percent. PG&E Senior Program Manager Justin Real says it’s having a real impact on improving the job outlook for minorities in Oakland.
“Typically, our students go on to make an average salary of about $92,000 a year. These are some of the last middle class jobs. For someone to come in, they don’t need a college degree or education and still be able to make upwards of $100,000 a year and most importantly working in their local community.
“When you think about it in terms of its much bigger than PG&E, the commerce that’s able to spread and frankly put, in the Oakland program for instance, Oakland gets a huge benefit in having one of their own residents making a salary much above minimum wage and being able to invest back in the community.
“From PG&E’s side, we’ve always been a very diverse company, but we’re really able to make sure that our students that now become PG&E employees are reflective of their community. They’re the best ambassadors that our company can ever have. They know what the work is like in their local communities,” Real said.
PowerPathway™ debuted in 2008 and came to Oakland in 2012. There are also locations in Fresno, Sacramento, San Francisco and San Jose.