Former Inmate: ‘Apprenticeship Changed My Life’

Joe-Gomez-Working-for-You-for-blogTwo decades ago Joe Gomez was sitting in a federal cell block after being convicted of selling drugs. He never could have imagined that in 20 years he would be sitting in the gallery of the Iowa Capitol as a guest of the governor. This is his story.

The East Moline, Illinois, native and high school dropout said years of hanging with the wrong crowd and making bad choices caught up to him when he was sentenced in 1996.

Determined to make a better life for himself and his children, he started cooking behind bars for 18 cents an hour and discovered a passion for food. When he was released after seven years, he signed up for Eastern Iowa Community College’s Registered Apprenticeship Culinary Arts Program. Through the program, he was paid to work in local restaurants while pursuing an associate degree at Scott Community College.

In the program, he found his mentor − culinary instructor and Chef Brad Scott − who helped Joe channel his passion into the drive to excel over the next three years.

“Chef Scott got me where I wanted to be,” Gomez said. “I loved competing in the cooking contests and working with great chefs. It gave me a chance to work in the food industry and make a name for myself.”

It took time to save up for it, but Joe finally opened his own restaurant, Los Primos Mexican Grill, in Davenport, Iowa, with his cousin in 2014. He now employs 14 people at the booming business and loves going to work each day.

Joe also spends time mentoring others, and says he is honest with his own six children, his employees and those he meets.

“I want young people to see the example of what I did, the price I paid, and to make good choices,” he says. “Good choices equal good results, bad choices equal bad results. You have to do it for yourself and work to make it better.”

Last year Joe was invited to sit on a panel discussion for Gov. Terry Branstad’s Future Ready Iowa initiative to discuss the impact of apprenticeship. The governor also asked him to be a guest at the 2016 Condition of the State address to the Iowa legislature in January, where Joe received a standing ovation for being an example of the power of apprenticeships to grow Iowa’s workforce.

“If it had not been for registered apprenticeship, I don’t know where I would be, probably another statistic in and out of prison,” Joe added. “It changed my life.”

Credit : United States Department of Labor

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