Urban League constructs new lives

By Kevin Beese Staff Writer

Andrew Wells, vice president of the Chicago Urban League’s Workforce Development Program, stands at the back of a job-training information session. (Kevin Beese/Chronicle Media photo)

Andrew Wells will never forget the young woman he interviewed for the Chicago Urban League’s Transportation-Construction Apprenticeship Readiness Training in 2016. 

Wells, now vice president of the Urban League’s Workforce Development program, asked the security worker, making $11.54 per hour in her full-time job, why she was looking to join the 11-week program, geared for unemployed individuals and only providing a weekly $400 stipend. 

“She looked it, broke down and started crying. She said, ‘I’m a single mother. I have three girls. Mr. Wells, I am struggling between putting food on the table, putting gas in the car, and paying my rent and bills,’” Wells recalled. 

Wells put the woman in the program, and she graduated at the top her class. She continued to be snatched up by higher-paying construction companies for seasonal work. 

Three years after her graduation from the program, he got a call from the front desk that someone was at the agency’s South Side office to see him. 

“She looked like a different person,” Wells said. “The first time I met her, she wore the stress on her face. That’s when it became apparent to me that ‘you just transformed this lady.’ She broke down and cried and said, ‘I am buying my first house. I have a new car; and I make $67 per hour.” 

Wells said stories like the young woman’s and the job training that the Urban League provides keeps him going in his post. 

“That’s why I come into this office every day and I’m proud of the work I do,” Wells said. “No matter how many challenges I have to go through, I know deep down inside that I’m doing work that not only changes me for the better, but it changes other people for the better. 

“I can go work for a corporation and make billions of dollars. It’s hard for me to tear myself away from this right now because I know that people outside these walls need people like me to help push them and help them to find their way.” 

The Urban League provides sector-based employment programming including training in high-demand industries such as health care, technology, clean energy, construction, and supply-chain management 

The agency floods Chicago neighborhoods with marketing materials letting individuals know about the Urban League’s job-training programs that they may not otherwise have access to, Wells said. 

“Everybody says, ‘Hey, if you need a job, go to the Urban League’ or ‘If you want training to get an industry-recognized credential, go to the Urban League,’” Wells said. 

All job training is provided free of charge. The training is funded by contractors seeking personnel. 

“Basically, they’re investing in a pipeline of workers,” Wells said. 

The only requirements of participants are that they show up and are committed to the training. 

Wells noted that if someone misses three days of training, he or she is dropped from the program. 

“Every day that you sit in that classroom, it costs us a certain amount of money. You squandered that,” he will tell no-shows. “We’ll give you another chance. If you squander it again, then you can no longer take a training class. 

“We can’t squander what the funders gave us. Somebody wants to be here and if it’s not you, it’s somebody else. Don’t take it for granted.” 

Wells said like in school, individuals who miss too many days fall too far behind. 

“It’s going to take the instructor more time to bring you up to speed and then the whole entire class suffers because they have to wait on you,” Wells said. “We’re not going to hold class hostage for you. We’re just not going to do that. (Missing) One day, you can catch up. Two days, that’s that yellow light.  Three days, you’re at a red light. You’ve got to stop.” 

Urban League training programs include a drone academy, where individuals learn to fly drones and get a drone pilot’s license; cybersecurity; and supply-chain management. 

Wells revived a program to train forklift operators and help individuals get their commercial driver’s licenses. 

“I revived it because it helps so many returning citizens coming out of the prison system,” the Urban League leader said. “They got their certification and started working in warehouses, driving forklifts, things of that nature. 

“It kind of helps them walk that straight line, but also to earn an income and support themselves and their families.” 

Urban League job training ranges from three days to nine months, with classes typically in the four- to 16-week timeframe. 

The agency’s most popular offering is its pharmacy technician training program. 

“Every time we put out the marketing, literally, in two days, we have more than 300 people apply for the 15 slots,” Wells said. 

With connections to CVS, Walgreens, and Northwestern Memorial Hospital, the Urban League winds up with graduates of the job-training program gainfully employed. 

Along with pushing individuals in the job-training programs, Wells said, he also pushes Urban League staff to be there for clients. 

“They need you to give them confidence. They need your support,” he tells staff of the nonprofit agency. “By any means, no matter what their challenge is, they need us. 

“You have to treat them with respect. You have to help them find their dignity. You have to put them back on that path. That’s the work that we do. We transform lives. If you’re not passionate about that, you have to leave my camp because these people need us.” 

Wells is thrilled that the Urban League has been given the former Walmart Academy in Chicago’s Chatham neighborhood, which includes a dental school, and a heating, ventilation and air conditioning school. 

“I am like a kid in the candy store,” Wells said of the training facility at 83rd and Stewart. “I finally got my own training academy.” 

The Urban League doesn’t just give people job-training, Wells noted. It also teaches people about proper office procedure. 

“We teach conflict resolution and personal branding,” Wells said. “We equip you with what you need. We teach people how to dress for the office.”