Kimberley Barragan practices her welding skills in the Gladiator Welding Program held at Washington Union High School on Monday, Dec. 6, 2021. Credit: CRAIG KOHLRUSS

What's at stake:

Gladiator Welding's founder fought to bring the program to his community which has suffered disinvestment for several decades and is home to the city’s most vulnerable residents as well as the city’s dirtiest factories, poorest-performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and accommodations with greatest livability concerns and fewer economic opportunities.

March 23 was a rebirth of sorts for many of the approximately 250 people who packed the Nielsen Conference Center in west Fresno for the graduation ceremonies of the first cohort of Gladiator Welding – 16 first-time welders seeking a chance for economic success.

For Leroy Candler, founder and executive director of Gladiator Welding, it was vindication of a decade of battling bureaucracy and detractors as well as affirmation that he knew what he was talking about all these years.

“It has been a seven-year journey,” Candler said in his speech. “There were times when it didn’t look like we knew better, but we never gave up. ”

For Greg Barragan, the main instructor for the Gladiator Welding program, the event meant everything all at once. Seated with his wife, Cindy, his daughter, Kimberley, 36, and Kimberley’s daughter, 9-year-old Samantha Vitolas, he beamed. His joy, uncontained.

He rose from his seat several times and worked the room, greeting and hugging many guests along the way. “What a special day,” he said many times. Kimberley is one of the two women graduating with this cohort, but Barragan said his joy was greater than his daughter’s success.

“I’m just the teacher,” he said, over and over.

As the main instructor, Barragan personally taught each of the 16 graduates everything they now know about welding. He could tell you every detail about each of them, about their families, their strengths and their weaknesses.

“They’re all gonna be good; they’ve all been taught by me. They all have the same moves,” Barragan had said of the apprentices, back in December 2021, in the thick of their training. “I have made sure that they all master each skill. I don’t let them go on to the next position or the next phase until they show me what I want to see.”

His students would tell you that “Mr. B” was more than a teacher. He inspired many of them with his stories – of his past life of crime and incarceration and about how welding saved him.

“I was that kid without hope. I was a bad kid. I was a juvenile delinquent,” Barragan said. “I was horrible, destructive. I was in violent gangs, as bad as you can get.”

A few tables away, Fresno Mayor Jerry Dyer, Fresno Deputy Mayor Matthew Grundy, Fresno County Supervisor Brian Pacheco and representatives for members of the Fresno City Council and state Assembly ate a barbecued chicken dinner with guests and lauded the graduates’ hard work and their families’ persistence.

“This achievement means open doors, opportunity and financial stability for me and my daughter,” Kimberley Barragan said. “I tell my daughter, ‘Never feel intimidated. Be proud of who you are.’”

A pathway to employment

After almost six months of classes in the welding shop at Washington Union High School in Easton, the students that Greg Barragan had nurtured were finally ready to be launched on March 23.

All 16 graduates received certification in metal inert gas welding, a technique that uses electricity to melt and join pieces of metal. Six of the candidates received additional certification in arc welding – a process that joins metal to metal with the help of an electric arc.

According to Jerome Countee, vice chancellor for Educational Services and Institutional Effectiveness for the State Center Community College District, what the students earned at graduation is a “pre-apprenticeship certification and a pathway to apprenticeship or to employment, college credit, whatever they choose.” They had all acquired enough skills for specialized work that put them solidly above the minimum wage category.

Several of the graduates had already accepted job offers; one was busy at work and could not come to the ceremony; a few received multiple job offers and were still mulling their options; a handful were exploring additional training. All but seven had been offered employment. Employers hovered.

Candler, a 27-year employee of Caltrans and a member of the Unit 11 bargaining team for Service Employees International Union, said the path to Gladiator Welding started the day Yvonne Walker, former president of SEIU, challenged him and other union leaders statewide to “go back to your communities and figure out ways that you can help people come out of poverty.”

He rose to the challenge. It took him about 10 years, but he never let up.

“Nobody’s working in our community,” he said he told multitudes of people he met along the way. “We need to do this to get them working.”

Welding ranks high among popular trades

Gladiator Welding students are part of a nationwide trend that has seen apprenticeships grow in popularity by more than 128% between 2009 and 2019.

Apprenticeships provide hands-on learning and technical instruction. According to information on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website, nationwide, more than 252,000 individuals entered the apprenticeship system in 2019; more than 633,000 apprentices were acquiring skills in about 25,000 registered apprenticeship programs across the nation, while 81,000 apprentices graduated from the apprenticeship system in that year. The number of apprenticeships grew by 3,133.

During the same period in California, 36,667 people entered apprenticeships, for a total of 94,761 apprentices statewide; 12,667 people graduated from the programs; 136 new programs started in 2019, for a total of 1,094 programs.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Occupational Outlook Handbook, which was revised in March 2022, welding jobs are projected to grow 8% from 2020 to 2030 nationwide, with median annual wage at $44,190 annually or $21.25 hourly in May 2020. In California, the average wage for welders was $52,460 annually or $25.22 an hour in May 2021; in Fresno, the annual wage was $47,630 or $22.90 hourly.

Many of the Gladiator Welding graduates with job offers reported a wage range of $20 to $23 an hour. Jose Morales, a welder associated with the program, said of the pay, “I realized that now, I’m more valuable because I can do this welding.”

Candler said it was the economic mobility that the welding career afforded that sold him on the trade. That, coupled with how quickly the skills can be acquired, kept him motivated, as he fought for a chance to get the program off the ground.

“I’m not doing this for the money,” Candler said. “I just want to be able to say that I gave something back to my community, that I did something that nobody else was willing to do or would take the time to do.”

He developed a mantra in the years of trying to sell his proposed apprenticeship – to legislators in Sacramento and various communities and churches – around the state. Despite the rejections and scorn, Candler said he persisted for his community.

Kimberley Barragan said she was drawn to welding for several reasons, including all the ways that welding enhances life, like building a wheelchair, helping with the circulation and the flow of clean water, and with stainless steel.

“To me, it’s the big community it brings. It brings structure. If you have welders, things will get built.”

Kimberley Barragan added, “There’s so much more to welding. Welding can open doors that you never realized there was a door there or that it was even open.”

It takes a village to prepare the apprentices

Gladiator Welding recruitment fliers promise candidates a program that teaches industry standards for employment leading to “gainful employment in a variety of industries,” if they complete the three-month program that meets five days a week for about four hours each meeting.

Graduates, according to the flier, would start with an average wage of $15 to $45 per hour for jobs as welders, cutters, solderers and brazers for entry level basic welding jobs in Fresno County.

A high school diploma or GED is required and applicants must take a four-hour assessment, taken two hours at a time to measure “a baseline of their interest, their abilities, and their capabilities,” Countee said, adding that apprentices need to be able to read and write, as they will be reading blueprints and other technical requirements of the job. The tests become part of the onboarding screening and recruitment process.

Candler said he hopes, however, that the program can accommodate candidates who seek to get their certification and high school diploma at the same time and give them “an opportunity to have one week of schooling and one week of job training.”

Countee explained the need for thoroughness in screening applicants. “We see whatever their needs are in the way of the leads that come along with it, or any issues that we may need to know about, if they have any problem that we are about to get from a background check, all the way to a drug test. We have to have a complete portfolio on that person.”

The program involves much more than teaching welding. It involves preparing students – some of whom do not have a culture of regularity – to show up reliably, on time and meet other commitments.

The West Fresno Family Resources Center is a case management partner for Gladiator Welding and provides support services, including material and other needs to assure that the apprentices succeed.

Yolanda Randles, executive director, said her office links case management with workforce readiness. She said that often, a candidate is just focused on joining a workforce training program, but that there are steps that her office must take to make sure they meet all the eligibility requirements and that all their needs are secured.

Randles described a case involving an apprentice who had lost his prescription glasses and had no money to replace them. It became a problem once the training started as it became apparent that the apprentice posed a risk to himself and others as he could not see well enough to be trusted with a welding torch. Randles said she scrambled to secure the needed glasses in one day.

A new addition to the Gladiator Welding program is in an area which may not seem directly related to welding, but which makes all the difference in whether or not the apprentices succeed in the workplace.

Career Nexus – a nonprofit that provides training in soft skills and internships to young people – is now providing training to apprentices who do not have work skills. Kurt Madden, founder and CEO of Career Nexus, said during a Feb. 9 interview that one of the main obstacles to career success for young people is how their families have modeled the world of work and all that it entails.

“We have young adults who nobody in their family in their house has ever held a job,” Madden said. “It’s an interesting phenomenon, so they don’t get the idea that you’re going to show up every day.”

He explained that in a typical school setting, parents are responsible for calling the school when a child is going to be absent or late. Some young people never master this simple task to call their workplaces to report an absence or lateness.

“It’s just like it didn’t occur to them, because in their background, they never had to call in for school,” Madden said. So Career Nexus puts them through soft skills training in a 200-hour internship.

Why this apprenticeship is vital for Candler’s community

The community Candler referred to in his pitches for the Gladiator Welding program is in the southern half of Fresno’s “Tale of Two Cities.” Particularly, he was focused on southwest Fresno, the 93706 ZIP code area, a community he never tires of talking about.

The grant that seeded the Gladiator Welding program came from the Transformative Climate Communities Program through Transform Fresno – a project that identified and implemented nearly $70 million of state investments for economic and environmental transformation in downtown, Chinatown, and southwest Fresno – areas of the city “that have suffered disinvestment for years,” according to Courtney Espinoza, a city employee who emceed the graduation event on March 23.

As reported in the first story of the “Broken Ladder” series, residents of this neighborhood, mostly Black, Latino and Asian populations, are more likely to live in high-poverty – the second-highest rate in the nation. It is home to the city’s most vulnerable residents as well as the city’s dirtiest factories, poorest-performing schools, crumbling infrastructure, and accommodations with greatest livability concerns and fewer economic opportunities.

Additionally, this is one of the areas with the lowest level of academic achievement in the city of Fresno. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, American Community Survey 5-year estimates, 2016-2020, 37.8% of adults older than 25 years old in the area do not have high school diplomas. Lack of educational attainment is often associated with low earnings and poverty.

In 2020, Myrick Wilson, owner and CEO of Mad illustrators, had told Fresno Bee/Fresnoland about the economic stagnation of the neighborhood.

In southwest Fresno, he said, “If I am on the wrong path and want to quit the street life, I can walk in any direction for half a block, I should find a church or place of worship.

“But if I want to get a job or training, I have to get in a car or bus or Uber, and drive miles outside of my neighborhood to find a place to give me an opportunity to work or to get training.”

The Unequal Neighborhoods project, led by Tania Pacheco-Werner, sociologist at Fresno State, notes that southwest Fresno residents are “unable to meet the minimum basic income” while white neighborhoods are “at least three times more likely to meet minimum basic income than southwest Fresno.’

“Nothing is here in west Fresno,” Wilson had said. “We are in a deficit. The numbers and statistics show we have a lot of needs to fill.”

Candler said he believes that programs like Gladiator Welding will help fill that gaping deficit.

“We need workforce development in our communities because that is the only way we can fight poverty and bring our people to fight crime and violence,” he told dozens of groups. “Get our people jobs, and get them trained to support themselves, and their families for generations to come.”

The program that almost never came to Fresno

Candler’s account of how the Gladiator Welding program came to be sounds like a mix of fable, theater and the supernatural and involves big names in both state and Fresno politics. He is not afraid to name names – of those who stood in his way, and who hijacked his idea, and about all the political machinations.

On one occasion, he took two bus loads and 20 car loads of people to the state’s Workforce Development Board meeting in Sacramento to lobby for a program to benefit Fresno’s west side.

“We tried to get on the agenda to explain the need for our people to have jobs and opportunity for jobs around the city,” he said. “We didn’t think we were getting a fair shake at the jobs and opportunities that were being presented. None of our people from our community were getting any opportunity on any of these jobs.”

He said the board took steps to ensure that his group would not attend the meeting. First they changed that meeting from Sacramento to Lancaster and refused to add them to the agenda.

Candler’s group decided to take advantage of the public comments period.

“We planned a program together, and a number of pastors and I, about 10 or 12 of us, took about three and four minutes each – whatever was allowed – to tell a whole story. When one speaker ran out of time, the other person would get up and continue on the story. So when the last part of the story was told, I put the whole story together,” he said.

“Three minutes, I was done. Everybody stood up, and we started walking out the door. And the board president said, ‘Hold it, you guys; don’t go anywhere. Please have a seat. We’ve never had anyone come before us, in a manner that you have, and demonstrated what you need. We are going to do something for you and your community.’”

In the end, the board voted to award the program $250,000 to start a workforce development program in Fresno. A great victory, it seemed at the time. Unfortunately, that was not the end of their hardship. Candler had a few more hurdles to scale before getting the program off the ground.

Then help came in the form of Ashley Swearingen, former mayor of Fresno, who asked Candler and his group to go to Sacramento before SGC (Strategic Growth Council) and tell their story about the struggles of southwest Fresno, in order to help the city secure funds marked for environmentally impacted communities.

“We were instrumental in helping her because of our statistics and because of our testimonies, and because of the people that we had, speaking before SGC,” Candler said. Fresno would be awarded $70 million through the Transformative Climate Communities Program, and Candler’s proposal was ranked high among the programs to be funded by the TCC money.

Looking back, Candler said, “All I wanted was to bring a program to my community and give our young people hope. I was trying to tell them that we could do all these things together. We could be stronger together if we work together. I tried so hard to get them to understand that concept. ”

“I was not looking for notoriety, nor was I looking for money. I really tried to put everything I had back into the project to get as many people as I could trained and to get the best instructors that I could. That was my goal. That was all I wanted.”

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Dr. Dympna Ugwu-Oju is the senior editor for Fresnoland.