Darnell Shields | Lee Edwards/Contributor

The nonprofit social service organization Austin Coming Together is teaming up again with United Way of Metropolitan Chicago (UWMC) to launch a pilot apprentice program to create pathways to union trade careers.

The announcement for the pilot, entitled “Access United,” was made at ACT’s quarterly meeting held at Austin College & Career Academy, 231 N. Pine Ave., on Jan. 26.

Access United will provide opportunities for up to 20 participants from Chicago’s Austin and Bronzeville neighborhoods who seek trade apprenticeship programs within the mechanics, carpentry, roofing and electrical work unions.

They’ll be assisted by UWMC’ case workers. The organization’s community partner agencies will help applicants meet the necessary prerequisites before meeting with a case worker.

The qualifications for being admitted into trade unions vary by union. However, once accepted, all apprenticeships offer paid training, ranging from $13.36 per hour for electricians and mechanics to $18.45 for roofers.

Austin is one of 10 neighborhoods UWMC has committed to partner with across the Chicagoland region as part of its Neighborhood Networks initiative. Neighborhood Networks is UWMC’s strategic initiative to address local community challenges by driving focused collaboration to achieve lasting change, according to its website.

Ayom Siengeo, UWMC’s senior manager of financial capability, said the skilled labor job sector is showing a “ridiculous” amount of growth. He said the pilot is aimed at broadening opportunities.

“Across our neighborhood networks, Austin really bubbled up as a community that’s ripe for doing something like this,” said Siengeo.

Andrea Kluger, UWMC’s labor liaison, said the only way to access trade union careers is by going through that union’s specific apprenticeship program. She added hat with the assistance of Access United, participants will have the best opportunity to not only start a program but also complete it.

Darnell Shields, ACT’s executive director, said ACT is excited to work with UWMC on Access United because of its promise of support and the resurgence of in-demand trade careers that can potentially lead to multiple living wage jobs for Austin residents. ACT is UWMC’s lead agency in Austin.

“We see it as an opportunity to help individuals who are interested in the construction trades be able to now actually have a more sustainable pathway to doing that,” said Shields.

Shields, however, said he has his concerns that the need for reliable transportation may disqualify worthy candidates.

“With a lot of the training programs the opportunity to enroll is here in Austin, [however] a lot of the training, application and testing is maybe in the suburbs, which is a nice stretch for individuals to be able to get to,” said Shields. “And then a lot of jobs are in the suburbs as well, so we’re trying to help United Way find ways to bring more support to the transportation.”

ACT gets new executive director

On Jan. 24, Austin Coming Together, the Austin-based nonprofit organization, announced the appointment of Darnell Shields as its executive director. Shields had been serving as co-director alongside Andrew born since the 2014 resignation of the organization's previous executive director, Rev. Reginald E. Bachus.

"We have successfully moved beyond a start-up organization and are well into implementing our strategy with the community," said ACT's board chair, Sharif Walker, in the statement. "In order to effectively continue this momentum and optimize our performance, we need the clarity and strength of an Executive Director. We are excited and grateful to have Darnell serving in this critical role."

Shields "has managed key functions including finance, human resources and information technology, playing a major role in developing and implementing ACT's organizational practices and standards," according to the statement.