Camping Out for a Job in San Francisco

Categories: Labor
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Joe Eskenazi
Waiting -- and hoping -- for work
In certain parts of San Francisco, a line of bleary-eyed people in tailgating chairs blinking in the morning sunlight is a hallmark of the launch of the latest wildly expensive designer basketball shoe.

The Excelsior isn't one of those places.

And yet, at 9:30 a.m., a line of several dozen men and women snaked down the tail end of College Hill on Mission Street, with the stragglers setting up shop toward the overpass high above Alemany. These folks wanted shoes, too. But it was a matter of affording them, not buying them.

Every year, hundreds if not thousands of hopefuls show up to fill out applications to become an International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers apprentice "inside wireman." The long road to a good-paying job with solid benefits starts with a long line. Guillermo Chacon should know: He showed up at 1 a.m. this morning to be the first through the gates when they open at 1 p.m.

And this is not the first time he has done so.

Chacon has arrived in the predawn hours each of the last three years; this stint at the head of the line was not his first. The 39-year-old married father of three has thrice filled out the application and thrice taken the entry exam. Today will be his fourth go-round. "I've been studying hard so I can test high," he says. "I think I've been close. But not close enough."

The Riordan High alum is hoping to downsize from two jobs -- one at Home Depot in Colma and a night shift at the Aquarium of the Bay -- to one. All that's required to fill out an application is proof of two semesters of high school algebra or one semester of it in college, a high school diploma or the equivalent, and a photo ID. Chacon has these things. "I am here looking for a career opportunity," he says with a smile.

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Joe Eskenazi
Guillermo Chacon hopes the fourth time's the charm
He was joined in line at around 5:45 a.m. by Angela Silver-Lima, who lives around the corner from the Mission Street Electrical Construction Training Facility in the St. Mary's Park neighborhood. She cased the training facility a few times overnight and decided to make her move when the sun came up. The unemployed city native moved back to her hometown from Seattle around a year ago after giving birth to her first child; she sums up her employment history as "various jobs."

This would be a good one to get. Those who make the cut enter into an apprenticeship program paying $22.77 an hour with medical benefits. After the first year, apprentices begin earning pension credits. After five years they may become journeyman electricians, earning $56.92 an hour -- plus benefits. That explains the line: Last year, says IBEW training director Steve Powers, 1,200 applicants submitted paperwork. Of these, 600 passed the test and were interviewed. And, of those, around 150 have been "taken off the list" since February.

Gumption of Chacon's sort is surely appreciated. But, notes Powers, it's not strictly necessary. The 3:30 p.m. cutoff applies to the last person waiting in line; hopefuls queued up outside who haven't filled out applications won't be sent off.

Chacon, however, took no chances. He came equipped with an iPod, a newspaper, snacks, and a bottle of water. And, tonight, he's due for an overnight shift at the aquarium.

"Maybe I'll take a nap later this morning," he said.


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2 comments
Joe Flores
Joe Flores

I was 1st in line to apply for my apprenticeship. Got there at 4 am. They only took 100 applicants. Being number 1 felt pretty good. Good luck brothers.

Paul Varga
Paul Varga

More power to them. Pun slightly intended.

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