A study from Voices for Illinois Children found that 20 percent of Illinois workers are employed in minimum wage jobs, which currently pay $8.25 an hour. For many Illinoisans, that makes supporting a family arduous, if not impossible.

But all hope isn’t lost. In 2017, the union construction trades in the Chicago metropolitan area forecast more than 2,500 new apprenticeship opportunities. To connect workers to well-paid jobs with benefits and room for career growth, United Way has partnered with local labor organizations to create Access United.

What is Access United?

A combination of training and job counseling, Access United helps potential workers learn all the aspects of a new trade. Our partners at the Chicago Federation of Labor (CFL), the Construction Industry Service Corporation (CISCO) and the Chicago Building Trades Council help make that happen.

In addition, Access United is especially interested in reaching people of color, women and opportunity youth.

At an information session in Bronzeville, Nicole Carter, coordinator of the Greater Bronzeville Neighborhood Network, noted that “landing a union job can be tricky.”

“Access United is an excellent opportunity to give individuals who are typically underrepresented in the trades an easier pathway,” she said.

Photo of Access United Pipefitter At Work

Preparing for the job

Unlike many careers, the trade unions have a unique application process that includes aptitude tests and physical skills assessments. To ensure Access United candidates will be successful all the way from application to employment, they’re provided with a case manager who helps them gather all the information and resources needed to be a competitive applicant.

Access United representatives also help candidates prepare for union aptitude exams, explore their career options and determine which trade is right for them. Job seekers can choose from a variety of trades, such as  auto mechanics, roofing, carpentry, electrical and bricklaying.

Most apprentices start out earning around $20 an hour with regular wage increases.  After four to five years in the field, an apprentice has mastered their trade and becomes a journeyman. In Chicago, a journeyman will make over $40 an hour, plus competitive benefits, a far cry from the $8.25 that some applicants would be making otherwise.

Career placement 

Since its creation, Access United has placed individuals in a wide range of apprenticeships across the city. Connecting candidates to this work is particularly a focus in the neighborhoods of Robbins, Blue Island, Bronzeville, and Austin, which are all part of United Way’s Neighborhood Network Initiative.

High rates of unemployment in these communities make access to the trades an appealing option for a lot of residents. Thanks to the coordinating power of the Neighborhood Network, community partners are able to easily connect potential applicants to the support of Access United. For Bronzeville, specifically, this program will help address the neighborhood’s bold goal to provide at least 5,000 residents with jobs that pay above minimum wage.

“If we can introduce skills and financial stability into the community then I think we’ve accomplished a great thing,” Carter said. “I think Access United’s benefit to Bronzeville is as simple as providing access.”

In this first year of Access United, we and our partners have been focused on developing key partnerships, data collection, identifying and resolving barriers to accessibility and creating opportunities for expansion.

Now, the fun work begins!


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