Connecting Veterans With High-Demand Careers: Program at Kennedy-King College’s Dawson Tech Gives Former Service Members a Hand Up

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“It’s relieving to understand I will have a job at the end of this,” said Steven Richardson, a student veteran.

Over the last 10 years, hundreds of veterans have walked through the doors of Kennedy-King College’s Dawson Technical Institute with a specific goal in mind: to earn a good-paying job in the utility industry. Six months later, after they’ve successfully completed the Utility Workers Military Assistance Program (UMAP), that goal becomes a reality. In fact, 598 UMAP participants have been hired at Peoples Gas since the program was established in 2012.

“Veterans aren’t looking for a hand out—they’re looking for a hand up,” described Richard Passarelli, the National Director of Veterans Affairs for the Utility Workers Union of America (UWUA), who helped launch the program nearly 10 years ago.

Passarelli, a former Navy Seabee himself, saw the critical need to connect other veterans who had served the country with high-demand careers. When he brought the UWUA’s Local 18007, the UWUA Power for America Trust, and Peoples Gas together to develop the program, Dawson Tech was identified as the ideal institution to provide the training.

Students and partners gather at Dawson Tech for an early celebration of Veterans Day.

Through UMAP, students take a series of general education and core courses at Dawson Tech for six months, where they’re focused on learning how to safely construct and operate natural gas distribution systems. The training is provided at no cost to the veterans, and they’re able to take advantage of the resources offered by Kennedy-King College’s Veterans Services Center, as well as financial counseling and assistance from the Dixon Center for Military and Veterans Services, throughout the duration of the program. Those who successfully graduate from UMAP receive a certificate of completion, 52 college credits towards their associate degree, and an offer for a full-time technical position at Peoples Gas.

Now in its 27th cohort, UMAP is viewed as a successful national model, as it was described on Thursday, November 4, 2021, when the current class gathered for an early celebration of Veterans Day. At the event, participants heard from a series of speakers about the benefits of the program, its evolution, and other efforts underway to ease the transition into civilian life.

Irene Munoz listens to one of the speeches given during the celebration.

The student veterans also shared some of their own experiences. One woman, Irene Munoz, had a 20-year career in the U.S. Army Reserve, reaching the rank of officer in medical services at Fort Sheridan. She then spent 10 years as a caseworker before learning about UMAP and joining the program.

Another student, Steven Richardson, who has been designated as the class leader, is a 24-year-old who enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps just out of high school. After six years with the Marines, his service officially ends in a few weeks.

Despite their different backgrounds, there’s a comradery among the group that reminds them of their time in the military. Steven may be the class leader, but he says that “they’re all class leaders,” and is sure that everyone in the group will remain friends long after graduation.

Class leader Steven Richardson shares information about his military background with the group.

For cohort 27, that graduation is just around the corner, set for March 2022. While Passarelli reminded the class to take it “day by day,” Steven can’t help but look forward to completing the program and starting the next chapter of his career.

“It’s relieving to understand I will have a job at the end of this,” he said. “This program gives me the chance to break a generational cycle of poverty.”