Program prepares graduates for union trades

Thirty-eight-year-old Angel Sanchez graduated today and got a certificate that puts him on the path to a well-paying job, but the Bayonne resident took a bad detour first. He spent decades in prison for dealing drugs. But Sanchez grabbed a lifeline, the prisoner reentry program run by former Gov. Jim McGreevey.

“I just destroyed my whole life to the streets and I was really dedicated to the streets, but I finally realized, as I got older, I got more responsibilities,” said Sanchez.

Sanchez marched with almost 100 other graduates from several different jobs initiatives, including NJ Build and the National Career Institute, after completing a program that trains them to apply for positions in New Jersey’s 21 union construction trades.

“This is a program that builds skills in carpentry, skills in plumbing, skills in electrical working. They learn wiring and they learn all kinds of things that will allow them to work in the construction industry,” said George Blount, president of the National Career Institute. “Many of our graduates will take the union test and they will go on and become union members, hopefully. That’s one of the goals of the program.”

Graduates come from all walks of life. At 55, and with a prison record, Eugene Falconetti also opted for a radical change in careers from computers to HVAC.

“I had difficulty getting hired and this was the best stepping step that I could see going along in the future,” said Falconetti.

“I don’t care where you’ve come from, I don’t know how long or how far down in the dumps or the gutter you were, you can lift yourself up. Whether you were incarcerated, whether you’ve had bad luck in life, whatever those obstacles were. Dedication and preparation can overcome them,” said Hudson County Freeholder William O’Dea.

Re-entry and jobs programs like these have helped hundreds of people get apprentice jobs in building trades that can pay over $50 an hour. Demand increased as more people transitioned out of prison, in part because the Obama administration had advised federal prosecutors to refrain from pushing for maximum sentences for low-level drug offenses. But that changed in May when Attorney General Jeff Sessions ordered prosecutors to seek the strongest possible penalties.

“These are drug dealers, and you drug dealers are going to prison,” said Sessions at an event at the Justice Department on May 12.

“Extending people’s lockup, extending people’s incarceration without the benefit of employment, without the benefit of training, is just a cost to the taxpayer without yielding any significant benefit and it’s sad,” said McGreevey.

Sanchez is determined to make this work.

“A big second chance, more responsibility, more like taking care of my grant, bills and stuff like that because I never had that,” he said.

The next step for these grads is filling out union applications. With the economy improving and an infrastructure bill in the works, they’re hoping for not just jobs, but careers.

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