Branching Out

Dustin Lynch and Courtney Kuhstoss Moore

In many ways Dan Vernon seems like an ideal candidate for the educational programs created by IUPUI’s Office of Family, School, and Neighborhood Engagement. 

Part of the Office of Community Engagement, it offers mostly not-for-credit classes designed to give Indianapolis’s most economically disadvantaged residents a chance to join the job market by receiving entry-level training in a diverse grab bag of skills and professions.

But Vernon isn’t a student. He’s the teacher.

A former gang member who by his own account was once just a “knucklehead running the streets,” he managed to pull himself up by his own bootstraps. A decade ago he signed on as a gofer with Green Arbor Tree Experts, an Indianapolis company that provides full-service tree care. Slowly, a job he took out of desperation turned into a career, and a road to personal redemption.

“It’s become a career path,” said Vernon, who’s now the company’s general manager. “When I came here it wasn’t out of any love for trees. It was out of a love for food. My family needed to eat. But I fell in love with trees, tree care and the science behind it.”

Today he spreads that love by teaching an urban forestry class to those interested in following in his footsteps. For $50 students attend a six-session program that imparts the basics of the tree care industry – enough to enable graduates to show potential employers that they already know a thing or two about the trade.

Instructor Dan Vernon,

Instructor Dan Vernon, left, shows his students the ropes (and trunks and branches) of the tree care business.

Because when it comes to landing an entry-level position in almost any industry, experience – any experience – offers a huge advantage.

“I get guys all the time who want work but have no experience,” Vernon said. “I would kill to have someone who knows the equipment I use and can go pick it out of the truck, who knows how to be safe on the job site and properly change the chain on a chainsaw. Those are things our students could do right away, instead of having to learn them on the job.”          

Vernon got his teaching gig – and his students got a leg up in the urban forestry trade – thanks to the auspices of IUPUI’s Community Learning Sites and Workforce Development effort, helmed by director Myron C. Duff, Jr. Urban forestry is just one of an assortment of classes helping the unemployed or underemployed gain the knowledge necessary to blaze a path into the world of work.

“The nature of our program, and my specific responsibility, is to develop work skills or job skills programs for impoverished neighborhoods,” Duff said.

The program focuses its attention on Indianapolis’s Martindale Brightwood neighborhood, along with the North East Corridor and the Near West and Near East portions of downtown. Besides urban forestry, the current academic lineup includes a Patient Access Specialist Program, a 30-hour fast-track class designed to prepare students for entry-level jobs in the medical field, such as registration, financial counseling and insurance verification.

“The first group that went through the patient access specialist program was so grateful that we would even consider putting on a program that they could participate in,” Duff said.

He plans to expand his offerings in the near future by initiating classes that are both highly practical and highly innovative. The marquee effort is a Pharmacy Technician Course that begins this fall. The 40-hour program prepares students to become technicians under the supervision of registered pharmacists and focuses on learning medical terminology, reading and interpreting prescriptions, and learning dosage calculations.

The price of the course is a fairly high $895 plus an additional $150 for books. However applicants can participate in programs sponsored by Work One to defray the cost. And in exchange they get to participate in an industry-recognized, accredited program that culminates in the acquisition of a state license.

“The instructor is typically a licensed pharmacist or certified pharmacy technician,” Duff said. “Those don’t come cheap.”

The pharmacy technician program’s relatively high price makes it somewhat of an outlier among Duff’s cost-conscious offerings. Most of the courses, including urban forestry, cost no more than $50. They’re mostly taught in area public libraries and schools, usually by volunteer instructors.

“We try to recruit instructors who are more concerned about the work than the pay,” Duff said. “What that does is allow us to keep the cost of the class low. Though we do want people to pay for the classes, because we believe they will have more of an investment when they have to pay something out of their own pockets.”

He’s also interested in developing programs that might offer a route into the work world for students burdened with criminal records. Indeed, one of the things that interested him about the urban forestry class was the fact that the industry was known for giving ex-offenders a chance.

The class got its start because Duff, who in addition to his academic duties was also a full-time pastor, met Vernon about a decade ago through his church work.

“We were talking about his new position maybe a year ago,” Vernon said. “I kind of have a heart for this city, just like him. He asked if I’d be willing to teach a class like this, and I was.”

Another course that’s in the early stages of development is a program to teach the fundamentals of basketball and football officiating. As with urban forestry, Duff sees it as a chance to offer something a little different – and perhaps more eye-catching and appealing – from the typical, run-of-the-mill programs for the disadvantaged.

“We really try to find very unique programs that aren’t typically done,” he said. “Normally in underserved neighborhoods you’ll find things such as woodworking and welding. Very typical programs. What we try to do is find things that will make an individual employable, but also something that’s unique to that particular population. We try to take a different angle.”     

One thing that’s entirely conventional, however, is the effort’s laser-like focus on helping the disadvantaged reach the first rung on the job ladder. To accomplish this, Duff is looking into developing an administrative assistant program and a course for human resources assistant positions.

“These would be entry-level programs designed to get people into the workforce, where they can make more than minimum wage and also earn benefits,” Duff said.

The reaction to these new options has been strong. The second patient access specialist class includes 15 students, more than double the number who took the course the first time. And the urban forestry program will kick off its second edition this summer. Duff says he sees big things ahead.

“I’m hoping that in five years we’ll be in a position to offer 10 to 20 classes all over the city, and in the majority of our underserved neighborhoods,” he said. “We will have a larger staff and be able to accommodate more of the things we want to do.”

As for Vernon, he sees himself continuing to teach the fundamentals of tree care. The advantages, he thinks, are obvious – both for the graduates and for his industry.

“In the spring tree companies are flooded with guys looking for work,” he said. “When I have to pick two out of ten guys that ask for jobs, I’m going to lean toward the ones who already know what the industry is about.”