Second Chances: Electrical careers for justice-involved individuals

By Susan DeGrane | May 15, 2023
“Big John” Harriel Jr.
Achieving success in the electrical field requires skills such as math and problem solving. But “Big John” Harriel Jr., superintendent and diversity manager for Morrow-Meadows Corp., City of Industry, Calif., and chair of IBEW 11’s executive board, insists life skills are most important. 

Achieving success in the electrical field requires skills such as math and problem solving. But “Big John” Harriel Jr., superintendent and diversity manager for Morrow-Meadows Corp., City of Industry, Calif., and chair of IBEW 11’s executive board, insists life skills are most important. 

Harriel, who grew up in South-Central Los Angeles, graduated at the top of his IBEW 11 class. 

“For me, being successful wasn’t just about working hard and learning what to do, it was about gaining life skills,” he said.

For more than 20 years, Harriel has taught life skills to those seeking help from 2nd Call, a community-based nonprofit serving proven-risk residents and others in the Greater Los Angeles area. 

“Here, people enter to learn and exit to lead,” he said. “I teach everyone to be able to lead and to do my job.”

Of the thousands Harriel has helped, 100 have gone on to work for Morrow-Meadows, much like he did in 1997. 

“For Black people and people coming from poorer communities, we have to ask, ‘How do we deal with unresolved trauma?’” Harriel said. “When a person sits in front of me wanting to know when they can start their career, I tell them, ‘I’m not interested in you getting a career yet. You have to learn to be a better person first.’”

That starts with “learning to love yourself” and “having something to aim for,” he said. 

Harriel owes those insights to a now-retired electrician he met while incarcerated in an Illinois state prison: Everett L. Tims of IBEW Local 538, Danville, Ill., who worked as electrical supervisor for the State of Illinois. 

“He’s why I understand the importance of mentorship,” Harriel said.

Now, as a mentor for many, Harriel teaches goal setting, active listening and anger management. Regularly rising at 3:30 a.m., he promotes the value of a strong work ethic and extreme punctuality.  “I’d rather be two hours early than two minutes late,” he said. 

How does one cultivate these strengths as Harriel did, having grown up in a drug-afflicted household, living on the street starting at age 14, having dealt drugs and served time in prison? 

“If we look through the lens of oppression, we can’t,” he said. “But if we have someone helping us understand what is expected and how to prepare, if we understand that a career is not an instant process, that it doesn’t happen overnight, that it takes effort every day, it’s possible to succeed. We then can operate from a position of strength, rather than weakness.”

Others in the industry are encouraging justice-involved individuals to enter the field. In 2018, IBEW Local 134, Chicago, received a grant through the Illinois Future Energy Jobs Act and formed the Illinois IBEW Renewable Energy Fund (IL IBEW REF). This organization administers the state-wide Solar Craft Apprenticeship, a pre-apprenticeship program aimed at establishing a pool of trained solar installers from economically disadvantaged and environmental justice communities. 

Despite pandemic-related postponements,
IL IBEW REF has trained more than 2,000 people, including IBEW apprentices, students from Chicago public high schools and those recently released from the Cook County Department of Corrections (CCDOC).

Robert Hattier, IL IBEW REF executive director, said that the programs “extend true electrical career opportunities to justice-involved individuals.” 

IL IBEW REF is affiliated with 17 Illinois IBEW locals, four high schools, two community colleges and CCDOC. Plans call for additional partnerships with the DuPage County Department of Probations and the foster care system.

In Missouri, Sylvester Taylor serves as director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the IBEW/NECA Electrical Connection, a partnership between IBEW 1 and the St. Louis NECA Chapter. Last July, he was selected to serve as a Department of Labor apprenticeship ambassador, expanding opportunities for those historically underserved. 

“For years, Blacks were trying to join the unions, and nobody wanted us,” Taylor said, who is president and co-founder of Greater St. Louis Electrical Workers Minority Caucus (EWMC) and IBEW 1 recording secretary. “Now that sentiment has changed because unions need the numbers, so we’re going to strike while the iron is hot.”

Besides informing schools with large minority populations about apprenticeship opportunities, Taylor has led the local EWMC chapter in a mentorship program with the Missouri Department of Social Services Division of Youth Services. The division serves boys and girls under 18 who have committed felony-level offenses by supporting them to earn GEDs and gain employment. 

Once a month for the last eight years, local EWMC member volunteers have visited young people residing in youth services facilities to promote strategies to improve their lives and bring awareness of the electrical trade. 

Many have found jobs in retail, which the EWMC chapter encourages for transitioning to more solid ground, but two found employment in the electrical trade, Taylor said.

Header image: “Big John” Harriel Jr.

About The Author

DeGrane is a Chicago-based freelance writer. She has covered electrical contracting, renewable energy, senior living and other industries with articles published in the Chicago Tribune, New York Times and trade publications. Reach her at [email protected].





featured Video


New from Lutron: Lumaris tape light

Want an easier way to do tunable white tape light?


Related Articles