Two years ago, Israel Garcia-Perez sat in a training classroom at the Charlotte Area Transit System (CATS) maintenance facility ready to begin his first day as an intern in the pre-apprenticeship pathways program. A partnership among Charlotte Works, CATS and the City of Charlotte’s Mayor’s Youth Employment Program (MYEP), it gives classroom training and hands-on experience to youth who are interested in the diesel auto-mechanics industry.
Now, as the 20-year-old prepares to begin his new job as a maintenance technician at CATS, he can’t help but think about how his journey has come full circle while carving a new path toward his career goals.
A Google search back in middle school piqued his interest in a career as a mechanic, and Garcia-Perez went on to participate in the automotive program at Myers Park High School. His presentation to the transit staff about his experience as a CATS secret shopper spawned the idea to create the pre-apprenticeship program.
“The first eight weeks were a little overwhelming, but the trainers and supervisors were very involved in helping us when we needed it,” Garcia-Perez said. “Since it was the inaugural [class], we all had to learn together.”
He completed one year of the pre-apprenticeship before enrolling full-time at Central Piedmont Community College majoring in automotive systems technology. He’s always wanted to work with BMW, so he jumped at the opportunity to join the school’s BMW associate degree program. Garcia-Perez added another notch under his belt with an internship at Goodyear.
“I want to do something that makes me happy so I’m pursuing it. I want to keep going to see what other opportunities I can get and what other degrees I can obtain,” he said.
His journey wouldn’t come without obstacles.
Garcia-Perez lives and attends college as an undocumented immigrant because of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. The policy, which was established by the Obama administration in 2012, allows certain undocumented immigrants who entered the country as minors to receive a renewable two-year period of deferred action from deportation and eligibility for a work permit.
His family arrived from Mexico when Israel was almost seven years old and instilled a motivation in him to work hard. In 2015, Garcia-Perez became the first in his family to graduate from high school and, in May, will be the first to graduate from college, showing that the hard work continues to pay off. However, he explained some of the challenges of pursuing his education:
“It’s complicated to go to college having temporary legal status. As deferred action, I’m not eligible for scholarships. Tuition is expensive and trying to pay [$4,000] every semester is a huge burden. I want to go after more education, but that requires me to have more support to cover costs due to financial aid limitations.”
Currently, Garcia-Perez splits his tuition expenses with his dad. He says that these obstacles only motivate him to do better in school. Another incentive: a 1966 Ford Mustang that’s waiting for some TLC.
“A family gifted me a laptop when I graduated high school. When they heard that I was interested in cars, they also gave me the Mustang. I wanted to fix it up, but because of costs at home and school, I had to put my dream project on hold,” he shared. “People suggested that I sell the car to help with expenses, but I consider it a reward for all of my hard work to be able to bring it back to life.”
Garcia-Perez is stepping into an occupation that is experiencing growth. According to labor market data*, there are approximately 1,300 maintenance technicians employed in Mecklenburg County with an expected demand for 280 additional workers over the next 10 years. For a full-time, entry-level technician, there’s opportunity to earn above the $23,629 living wage salary in Mecklenburg County, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s living wage calculator. Labor market data also reports that entry-level technicians start at $35,000 in Mecklenburg, while the average wage is $47,700. Experienced technicians earn up to $54,100 annually. That is significant considering the efforts around increasing economic mobility and creating economic opportunities for those like Garcia-Perez and his family.
“Israel is living proof that providing career pathway opportunities lead to the creation of a stronger talent pipeline,” said Patrick Graham, Charlotte Works’ President and CEO. “We can create thousands of young people like Israel if we invest in their future.”
The former intern is excited to return to CATS as an employee. He also relishes the fact that he can speak to incoming students exploring the pre-apprenticeship program.
“I told the students, ‘I was in your seat. I know what’s going through your mind,’” he said. “CATS has so many opportunities to offer, not just as a technician. I wanted to motivate them.”
Garcia-Perez is committed to taking advantage of those opportunities. He plans to complete a bachelor’s degree in business management and work his way up to a district manager role at CATS.
“I want to be able to give back to those who helped get me here,” he said.
*Job projections and wage data are sourced from JobsEQ, Chmura Economics, Q4 2016