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Helping Engineer a Future : Rail Project Executive Works to Expand Opportunities for Youths

TIMES STAFF WRITER

From his corner office on the 39th floor of a Downtown high-rise, Charles E. Daniel Jr. scans the urban landscape as it sprawls to the ocean. On a clear day, he can see Catalina Island. But in Daniel’s eyes, the stunning view is bittersweet.

Even though the prized office symbolizes his success at Engineering Management Consultant Team, the firm overseeing the Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s $167-billion Metro Rail project, bitterness comes from knowing he is the only African American in the 600-employee firm with such a view.

The lack of people of color in executive positions at his company, and in transportation engineering in general, has inspired the 35-year-old engineer to educate inner-city teen-agers about the business and to get them jobs in an industry that, Daniel says, “has a great future over the next 30 years.”

Two days a week, Daniel teaches computer-assisted design at Manchester High School to 30 students as part of an MTA-sponsored program. The 8-year-old Transportation Occupational Program, which offers training to 200 high school students in the Los Angeles area, exposes students to a career in transportation and promises a summer job if they stay in school, complete the course work and earn a passing grade.

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Daniel has arranged summer jobs for nearly 60 of his students at his company over the past few years. He has even managed to keep 13 students on as permanent part-time help during the school year, mostly as assistants to engineers, helping out with drafting, data entry and laboratory work.

“There’s an obligation to hire people from the community,” the Washington, D.C., native says. “We are using taxpayer dollars to build the largest transportation project in the nation. We must give back to the community.”

Though Daniel said he faced resistance from some in upper management, he said he secured jobs for his “posse” because “it was the right thing to do.”

Company officials praise his efforts.

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“We think the TOP program is an excellent program to give the kids an overview to what to expect if they do decide to work in this field. We fully support it,” said K. N. Murthy, director of engineering and projects at Engineering Management Consultant Team.

MTA officials created the TOP summer program to benefit residents in communities affected by the construction of the rail project, which includes the Red, Blue and Green lines and the Metrolink commuter railroad. Construction is expected to last nearly 30 years. Also, MTA guidelines require contractors working on the train system to hire women and people of color.

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The TOP program targets high school juniors who have taken algebra and who have an interest in engineering. Beatrice Lee, a program administrator, said career counselors and school advisers post signs on campuses and screen students, helping to locate interested youths.

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In class, the students learn mechanical and architectural drafting, technical math, graphic design and other related skills. In the summer jobs, the students use the entry-level skills they have learned in tasks ranging from helping engineers maintain trains to surveying tunnels and tracks.

After high school, students can continue in TOP summer jobs, as long as they attend college and maintain a 2.5 grade-point average.

“Charles has done a great job as far as helping young people learn about transportation and in getting them jobs,” Lee said. “He is instrumental in letting his employer see that these young people have skills and can work now.”

Francisco Camacho, 22, said the program keeps him in school and gives him a reason to do well. Camacho, a Los Angeles Trade Tech student, said learning about engineering in high school opened up a whole new world.

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“This has been an amazing opportunity for me,” he said. “This is a field I want to be in for a long time.”

For Daniel, the task is simple. “If people in the community want to work and they’re willing to indoctrinate themselves in the industry, we’ve got to meet them halfway and explain how to get involved, and how to get a job,” he said.

“There’s a lot of talk about hiring people, but it’s a lot harder to actually do it. I’m making sure that they’re doing what they said. Oftentimes, I get people angry.”

Daniel attributes his tenacity to his mother, Janice, who raised her three children as a single parent in the nation’s capital. She taught them they could do anything as long as they worked hard and held onto a dream. Daniel’s sister is a pharmacist and his brother is a licensed plumber.

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From his father, Charles Sr., Daniel developed an interest in engineering. The elder Daniel, a manager with Allied Signal in Maryland, got his son his first summer job at NASA in high school. On the job, he spent time with world-class engineers and became hooked. Daniel studied at Alabama A & M, then went on to design rail cars at Amtrak in Washington, D.C., before joining a California engineering firm.

For the rail project, Daniel as deputy division manager helps other engineers plot the design of their projects, such as the tracks and station buildings. When not working, Daniel spends time with his daughters, Chrystal, 3, and Jade, 7, “the two gems of my life.” Daniel and his former wife share custody of the children.

“I work hard for my children to give them a good life. But I also work hard for my other kids, the posse. By helping them to be successful, one day they will help others. And possibly the people they help might be my daughters. It’s a big cycle.”

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Stephan Evans, 21, who started in the TOP program in 1990 and now works at Engineering Management Consultant Team on a permanent part-time basis, says he looks up to Daniel.

“He’s been an inspiration to me. Seeing a brother doing the things he’s done, it gives me hope that I can do it too, because I don’t see a lot of African Americans doing it.”

Daniel is aware of the young eyes looking up to him. “Sometimes I run into walls, but I continue to advance. If I can keep moving forward, they will see me do it and then say: ‘I can do it too,’ ” he said.


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