Tom Saunders was taught the value of education and responsibility at an early age. Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, Tom recalls the required order of events each day after school: finish your homework, do your chores, and then you can go out to play. The day following his high school graduation, his mom knocked on his bedroom door and said, “Now, it’s time for you to find a job.” It’s this value of education and character that Tom still carries with him today.

Per his mother’s instruction, Tom began looking for jobs immediately after high school. His first job was as a lifeguard at the John F. Kennedy Center, a social service agency in Erie. Some time later, he received a call from an unemployment office about job openings with General Electric. Tom jumped on the opportunity and began to work two jobs – in the mornings as a lifeguard at the Kennedy Center pool, and in the afternoons as a painter at General Electric.

Tom worked at General Electric for 9 ½ years, and during that time began spending time with the “party crowd” at work. He lived a party lifestyle, and started drinking and using drugs. He made attempts to get help by spending time at church and working with an AA sponsor, but wasn’t able to completely walk away from the lifestyle. Eventually, General Electric let him go. Not long after, Tom was caught attempting to sell drugs and went to prison.

Tom Saunders_1During his time in prison, Tom says that he realized the true value of freedom – that’s it not just being out from behind bars, but that true freedom comes when you have a peace of mind. When he was released from prison, Tom went back to work trying to rebuild his life. Over the course of the next 20 years, he attended multiple trade schools to study machining, and always kept two jobs. His goal was to eventually advance to work in set up and programming in the machining trade. But, his struggle with drugs and alcohol was an ongoing one. There would be set-backs; periods of time where Tom would fall back into familiar habits, find himself out of a job, and have to start over. It was a constant battle to continue taking positive steps toward the life he ultimately hoped for – one where he could get paid for doing a job he loved, and be surrounded by the love of family and friends.

In 2006, Tom was again offered a job at General Electric as a painter and forklift driver. While watching the programmers at work, his desire to one day rise to that level in his career grew stronger. But, the same party lifestyle that led him astray the first time around came back calling.

“We would go out, and I would pay for everything. That eventually caught up with me,” Tom recalls. “After being rooted and grounded for a while, I fell out of going to church. I let material things in this world change me.”

Eventually, Tom decided that something had to change. He moved out of the city, and into the suburbs of Erie. He was working two jobs, could support himself, and had managed to save some money, but needed a fresh start. In January 2015, his sister called him and suggested he move to Austin. Tom agreed, and moved in May 2015.

After arriving in Austin, Tom was itching to get to work. He daily frequented Workforce Solutions Capital Area looking for opportunities. One day, he met Skillpoint’s recruitment coordinator who told him about the Machine Operator course offered through the Gateway program. The course was full-time, offered at no cost, and Tom would graduate with the industry-recognized certifications he needed to advance his career. Tom enrolled in the Machine Operator program that fall, and spent six weeks learning hard skills of machining, while working a night-shift job to support himself.

“Everything you do in life, you’re going to have to sacrifice,” Tom explains. “As Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘Intelligence plus character. That’s the true goal of education.’”

In December 2015, Tom graduated from the Machine Operator course. His perseverance, drive and friendly spirit was an inspiration to his classmates, and he’s not done yet. Tom is focused on continuing his education in machining, and achieving his goal of becoming a programmer.

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For Tom, Skillpoint offered a fresh start, the chance to continue his education, and the opportunity to reach his goals.

“When you see someone down, do you look down on them because of their position, or do you look down to help them up?” Tom asks. “That’s what the people at Skillpoint did for me – they showed me that regardless of who you are or where you came from, they will help you up. I’m very thankful.”