Robinson Cano. Tim Tebow. Bo Jackson. Blair Garner.
Remember Nike’s “Boom” commercials from 2010? Cano, Tebow and Jackson, three of the hemisphere’s best-known athletes, starred in different spots. Garner? The kid from Uniondale was cast as Nike’s high school quarterback in a spot called Boom Huddle. Clad in fictitious high school football uniforms, he and his teammates break huddle and explode into action – Boom!
“That was me in the middle,” Garner recalls. “Did you see it?”
His mother, Clariona Griffith, managed her son’s budding career.
“I took him on all sorts of auditions,” she says with a pleasant laugh. “I told him, ‘You’ll hear a million ‘no’s’ before you hear that one wonderful ‘yes.’”
The early Nike gig pushed the youngster’s earnings to more than $30,000 that year. It was a promising start. Over the next few years he snared roles in commercials for Metro PCS and Nickelodeon; was cast in a couple of small movie roles; and landed an appearance on Law & Order SVU.
The clock, however, was ticking. Garner turned 24 last year and took stock of his career as an actor slash model slash dancer.
“I didn’t really know where I wanted to go in life,” he says. “Everything I was doing wasn’t totally fulfilling. I wanted to reach out and help people. I wanted to bring light into their life.”
A casual conversation with his father introduced him to YouthBuild, a vocational training and job-readiness program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor operated by United Way of Long Island. Students learn soft skills like dressing appropriately for the worksite, and methods of resolving conflict.
“The atmosphere in YouthBuild was very encouraging,” Garner recalls. “Everyone around me was also trying to better themselves. It felt like one big family.”
After completing YouthBuild’s program, Garner enrolled in Opportunities Long Island, a vocational training program, whose website says it “connects individuals from underserved communities to union construction.”
About 40 young Long Islanders, ages 18 to 24, are being trained as apprentices this year at OLI. Tuition’s free, although students buy their own books. The program shuttles students among eight or so union halls, where they learn directly about the trades they might enter.
Garner made a beeline to International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 25, the electricians’ union. He listened to everything he was told about how to use the tools of the trade safely, and about what it means to be a union electrician.
He knew that OLI graduates move into union apprenticeships. Apprenticeships last five years, during which time workers earn about half pay – roughly $50,000 a year in pay and benefits. After the five-year period their paychecks double to about $100,000.
“When I first heard about OLI, I thought: No Way,” Garner says. “How could you get into a union in such a short amount of time?”
The answer: demographics.
“There is an aging workforce out here on Long Island,” says Stephen Muzyka, United Way’s director of housing and training services. “Unions are calling me all the time, asking for apprentices.”
After he was hired by IBEW, Garner went back to both training programs and shared the good news with his old friends.
“Blair is a nice young man, very motivated and presents very well,” says Jenette Adams, YouthBuild’s program director. “He works very hard, always with a smile on his face. I was delighted he got hired.”
One of the young man’s first jobs was installing and maintaining traffic signals.
“We fixed a traffic light in Deer Park that had been broken a while,” Garner says. “People honked and cheered when we were finished because we’d solved their problem.”
His mother is proud and, naturally, has her own perspective.
“For Blair to go from acting into being a union electrician is so exciting, even a little far-fetched,” she says. “When he was a kid, I couldn’t get him to fix a fuse box.”