Desperate for workers, employers look behind bars
FRACKVILLE, Pa. (AP) — Ask Steven Blazer what kind of employee he’s looking for, and the staffing agency manager rattles off a list:
Someone who will show up on time with a positive attitude. Someone who’s physically fit. Someone who can work full time.
In today’s tight job market, fueled by Pennsylvania’s lowest unemployment rate in almost two decades, Blazer, of Surge Staffing in Schuylkill County, is having a difficult time finding workers who fit his list. With hundreds of warehouse positions to fill, he’s looking in an unusual place for new hires: behind bars.
“We understand that people deserve a second chance,” said Blazer, one of more than a dozen vendors at the Frackville state prison’s recent career and reentry fair. “If a person wants to work, we want to talk to them.”
The fair, held last week at the maximum security facility in Ryan Township, Schuylkill County, about 60 miles northwest of Allentown, is part of a state Department of Corrections push to get inmates ready to return to their communities. More than 90 percent of the estimated 46,000 people in state correctional facilities return home after serving their sentences.
The job fairs, which began last year and are held annually at each of Pennsylvania’s 24 state prisons, give inmates nearing their release date a chance to talk face-to-face with potential employers, as well as representatives from community colleges, religious organizations and self-help groups.
Gathering handfuls of flyers from companies such as Walmart, FedEx, Hershey and Lowe’s, prisoners walked from table to table, chatting with sales reps and each other.
“I’m looking for something different,” said Pete, a 49-year-old Philadelphia resident who worked in construction before coming to prison in 2004. Citing protocols, prison officials declined to release the last names of inmates interviewed for this story.
“I’ve looked at quite a few brochures today, and when I get out, I’m going to call quite a few people and see where it leads,” Pete said.
A job fair inside a prison would have been unheard of just five years ago, said Jeff Cutler, a teacher at the prison. But a combination of criminal justice reforms and a shrinking labor pool has made employers more willing to consider former inmates.
“It used to be very hard for an ex-offender to get a job,” Cutler said. “Everything has changed now.”
Nationwide, nearly 600,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. Pennsylvania’s state prisons release about 19,000 people annually.
FBI statistics show that about 73.5 million people ? nearly 30% of the adult U.S. population ? have some kind of criminal record.
People who’ve been in prison are about five times more likely to face unemployment than the general public, according to the nonprofit Prison Policy Initiative. But a raft of new laws in the past two years, mostly aimed at sealing old criminal records or requiring employers to interview potential hires before asking about criminal records, is chipping away at that statistic.
As they give more former felons a chance, employers are learning that many have learned things in prison that make them an asset to companies, Cutler said.
“A lot of the people on the streets don’t want to work hard, and don’t have any skills, while these guys are eager to work and have had training. They know they’re on their second chance and they have something to prove,” he said.
Like more than 80 percent of the people who enter Pennsylvania’s prisons, Andre, 28, of Wilkes-Barre, did not have a high school diploma when he was sentenced nearly five years ago. He’d also never held a job.
During his prison stay, Andre earned his GED and OSHA certification, and completed training to work as a flagger, directing traffic around road construction crews. He came to the job fair hoping to talk to companies hiring near his hometown.
“It makes me feel better about myself, knowing that I did something to get ready for the future,” Andre said.
Inmates in Pennsylvania state prisons can earn certifications for a range of vocations, including barbering and cosmetology, truck driving, welding, Microsoft computer applications and eyeglass manufacturing.
They can also earn a high school diploma and some college credits. Leslie Bartholomew, director of returning adult and veteran services at Lehigh Carbon Community College, was at the fair to talk to inmates about enrolling in classes before and after their release.
“If they have a desire to learn, we can help them become a valuable member of society,” she said.
One of the most popular tables at the job fair was a demonstration of new virtual reality goggles that allow inmates to “visit” places on the outside to prepare for release. Through the devices, prisoners headed to halfway houses can take a virtual visit to those facilities. Soon, the views will be expanded to include neighborhoods and places inmates who have been behind bars for decades may soon have to navigate for the first time.
“Walking into a place like a Walmart (Supercenter) can be very disorienting for someone who has been incarcerated for most of their life,” said Lacosta Mussoline, a re-entry administrator.
A majority of the companies represented at the fair were from Schuylkill County. That’s something organizers hope to change, Cutler said, because more than half of the inmates at Frackville come from urban areas like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Businesses from those areas sent flyers and brochures to the prison job fair, but few managers were willing to drive into coal country to attend.
Kathy Brittain, the prison’s superintendent, said she was pleased that businesses near the prison were getting involved.
“It’s excellent that, with the community’s help, we’re able to provide more resources,” she said.
If the economy stays strong, Pennsylvania employers will likely continue to struggle to fill positions. The state’s unemployment rate dropped in March to the lowest rate on record, as payrolls hit a record high and the number of people unemployed shrank to its lowest level since 2000, the state Department of Labor and Industry said.
Blazer, the staffing agency manager, thinks former inmates could help a lot of businesses keep up with production.
“So far, I have been really pleased with the people who’ve come up to talk to me today,” he said. “They seem like they have a real desire to work.”
Information from: The Morning Call, http://www.mcall.com