A Step in the Right Direction: The benefits of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals

Bloom incarcerated individuals
istock / wildpixel / Operation New Hope / Armartes Williams

With widespread labor shortages and a growing skills gap looming, electrical contracting firms have had to turn over every stone to identify and attract prospective workers. From promoting job opportunities at the middle, high school and college levels to recruiting former military personnel and more, contractors must ensure they’ll have the labor to support growing construction.

Experts encourage contracting firms to seriously consider the population of formerly incarcerated individuals as a viable, productive source of labor. Here, spokespeople for two workplace reentry programs discuss the benefits of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals and give tips to help contracting firms increase their chances of a profitable hiring experience.

Operation New Hope

An Operation New Hope job coach test-drives machinery.
An Operation New Hope job coach test-drives machinery.

Unemployment for formerly incarcerated individuals is disproportionately high; at the same time employers struggle to find qualified workers. Operation New Hope, an award-winning reentry program founded in 1999 to address poverty, crime, homelessness, property disrepair and drug addiction in Jacksonville, Fla., is helping to bridge the gap.

“According to the Prison Policy Initiative, the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people in June 2019 was 27% compared to the national rate of 3.7%,” said Operation New Hope founder/CEO Kevin Gay. “But for the first time in two decades, U.S. Department of Labor data reveals that the number of open jobs each month has been higher than the number of people looking for work, resulting in a labor shortage.”

Gay noted that low-to-medium-skilled jobs are the hardest to fill because more Americans are going to college and taking professional jobs, while many working-class employees are retiring.

“Therefore, a variety of industries would be well-served by employing formerly incarcerated individuals, especially those who have been trained and vetted through our Ready4Work program,” he said.

“During the past 20 years, we’ve touched over 7,000 returning citizens, their families and the communities to which they return.”

Formerly incarcerated individuals participate in Operation New Hope’s award-winning Ready4Work reentry program.
Formerly incarcerated individuals participate in Operation New Hope’s award-winning Ready4Work reentry program.

Ready4Work delivers trained workers to more than 400 employment partners in fields such as warehouse and logistics, customer service, recovery and manufacturing.

Specifically, of the 450 clients enrolled in its four-week Ready4Work program annually, nearly three-quarters will graduate and roughly the same percentage of graduates will go on to achieve gainful, living-wage employment with an average starting salary of $11 per hour. According to Gay, Ready4Work’s three-year recidivism rate—8.6%, versus 24.5% for the Florida Department of Corrections—illustrates the program’s success and cost savings.

Ultimately, he said, “We’re saving taxpayers millions of dollars by avoiding the repeated cost of incarceration and lost tax revenue.”

From his experience, Gay said there are numerous benefits associated with employing formerly incarcerated individuals.

“Our Ready4Work reentry program is based on best practices outlined by the U.S. Department of Labor, and our clients learn life and job skills training through 29 learning modules,” he said.

“Our clients are tested and must remain drug free, and each client is assigned a job coach who mentors them in resume-building, interviewing skills and professional development. Employers have come to trust our model and clients and benefit from increased profit through quality of work, WOTC tax credit, reduction in hiring costs and federal bonding,” Gay said.

Based on its proven success over two decades and recognition from presidents Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump, as well as federal, state and local representatives, law enforcement and business leaders, the Ready4Work team delivers prerelease services to 12 prisons and was recently approved to deliver services to 10 more in Florida.

“The success of this program is evident in the transformation stories of our clients, enhanced hiring practices for employment partners, healthier communities and families and better public safety,” Gay said.

I-CON Reentry Program

As a leading manufacturer of electronic plumbing, controls, valves and energy-saving stainless-steel fixtures for correctional facilities, Oviedo, Fla.-based I-CON Systems Inc. has unique visibility to America’s prison population’s needs and abilities.

“I go into prisons and train inmates known as ‘trustees’—good inmates who hold jobs—on installing our products because they’ll have to maintain them,” said Rich Tomai, senior account executive for I-CON’s Northeast Region.

At the Ohio facilities where he has launched this program for I-CON, Tomai said opportunities for inmates awaiting release are fairly bleak.

“Currently, the system opens the door for recidivism,” he said. “With no money, no skills and often no family or support, it’s hard to get a job with a felony rap, and many of these individuals end up back in jail. However, I worked in construction and knew that industry was more apt to hire them because they work in a supervised group.” Through the pre-apprenticeship program he drives, “I offer two to three days of class time teaching basic plumbing skills and our products, then work alongside the facility’s maintenance inmates doing installation in the field for a week,” Tomai said.

At Richland Correctional Institute in Mansfield, Ohio, nine inmates graduated from I-CON’s inaugural training program in 2018.

“We held a ceremony for them, which was attended by facility and state department representatives and covered by the local newspaper, and each inmate received a pre-apprentice plumbing certificate, which gives them something they can show to a plumbing contractor or another employer when they get out,” Tomai said.

While he noted the majority of correctional institutions hire outside contractors to install and maintain plumbing fixtures, Tomai said that his model delivers savings that are hard to ignore.

“Through our Richland project, for example, which involved the installation of 200 showers, the use of in-house labor avoided $320,000 of outside installation costs and the products themselves save $140,000 on water annually, so the project delivered $460,000 in savings back to the state of Ohio,” he said.

I-CON Systems’ Rich Tomai, left, and facility and state representatives with recent Richland Correctional Institute I-CON plumbing training course graduates.
I-CON Systems’ Rich Tomai, left, and facility and state representatives with recent Richland Correctional Institute I-CON plumbing training course graduates.

For inmates, “this initiative gives them a chance to get into a field that offers a decent salary they can build a life around, helps position them for a more successful future when they get out and also shows employers that they did the job,” Tomai said.

From his experience, “the inmates we interact with are the ones committed to learning, working and following the rules,” Tomai said. “There’s talent out there and the trades would be shocked at the quality of people they could get if those individuals were given the opportunity. While it can be challenging to get state administrators on board with these types of programs at first, there are a lot of electrical, LED and other upgrade projects going on in correctional facilities today—there’s no reason not to look there for new hires.”

For Tomai, the value of these hires is more than economic.

“It’s rewarding to help others, and I-CON has impacted dozens of inmates.” Tomai said, adding that he has run three training programs in Ohio since 2016 and his company has conducted them in other states.

“Prisons are so crowded and costly and it’s hard to go into these facilities and look the other way—your heart hurts. This is a feel-good, win-win program that creates a safer, more productive community,” Tomai said.

Positioning for success

Experts shared tips for creating a positive and productive hiring experience when working with these individuals:

Understand the challengesAccording to Gay, returning citizens face a multitude of obstacles upon release—financial hardship, affordable housing, lack of reliable transportation and limited educational opportunities—and may struggle with trauma, mental illness and dependency issues. To address this, Ready4Work clients are paired with a licensed mental health counselor and a case manager to develop and implement an individualized care plan. “Our clients can also receive up to $5,000 in supportive services and earned incentives while enrolled in the program, including transitional housing and transportation,” he said.

Modify language“We’ve found that many inmates gained mechanical and electrical experience while behind bars but lack the specific vocabulary needed to discuss it,” Gay said. “If employers interview and train candidates using laymen’s terms, they’ll be surprised by how experienced and capable these candidates truly are.”

Consider launching a program“Electrical contractors should consider bidding jobs in prisons and launching a training program like ours,” Tomai said of tapping into this viable labor pool. “They might even sell jobs by including a training program.”

Keep an open mind“The best thing you can do is treat the formerly incarcerated like anybody else,” Tomai said. “There are no guarantees with anyone you hire, but these individuals might work harder than others because they have an incentive—they don’t want to go back. Keep an open mind and judge the person where they are now.”

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