Can prisons offer contractors a pipeline of qualified workers?
Construction companies nationwide are tapping into a pool of ex-offenders who are starting over with construction skills and credentials.
The construction industry has tried to attract new workers through initiatives like apprenticeships, support of high school career and vocational training and outreach to women, veterans and ethnically diverse communities. But one potential group remains largely untapped: The nation’s prison and jail populations.
There are plenty of incarcerated individuals looking forward to living productive lives after serving their sentences. Fortunately for them, there are an array of job types under the banner of construction, an industry that has proved to be one of the most accepting of ex-offenders, said Rebecca Battle-Bryant, vice president of human resources and workforce development at United Infrastructure Group (UIG), headquartered in Great Falls, South Carolina.
Battle-Bryant also is a former assistant executive director at the South Carolina Department of Employment and Workforce. During her tenure with the state, she advocated for construction career training as a viable alternative to the four-year college track. “Craft trades are where the money is,” she said.
That focus eventually broadened to include the state’s inmate population, and Battle-Bryant brought those ideas with her to UIG, where she said the company’s ownership “believes in second chances.”
But make no mistake: The willingness to bring ex-offenders into the fold was a practical one as well. “We’re hiring like crazy and turning over like crazy,” Battle-Bryant said. She estimated that 50% of new hires will have left the company just eight weeks after their hire date.
Certifications for prisoners
Corrections-based construction programs vary from state to state, and there’s no national standard for what course of study inmates can pursue. For example, in North Carolina's Inmate Construction Program, inmates involved in the apprenticeship program spend 480 hours in the classroom and complete more than 6,000 hours of on-the-job training, mainly on government projects, before receiving a journeyman's certification, according to the Department of Public Safety. Some inmates earn certification in two or more trades.
However, there is at least one national certification program that will follow the certificate holder wherever he or she may go, and it doesn’t typically reference where the person received the training. The National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER) offers certifications considered to be some of the most common and most valuable. The program's core curriculum helps prepare inmates for the basics of working on a jobsite, including safety practices.
But the organization also has other certificate programs in prisons and jails around the country.
Michelle Cotter, director of educational services at CoreCivic, one of the largest private operators of prisons in the U.S., said the company offers NCCER certificate programs in carpentry, electrical, HVAC, masonry and plumbing, depending on the facility. CoreCivic requires instructors to earn the NCCER teacher certification as well.
Steven Herold, a vocational instructor at CoreCivic’s La Palma Correctional Center in Eloy, Arizona, a facility run by the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to handle prisoner overflow, said that the prison offers courses in carpentry, plumbing, electrical, horticultural and computers. All the training programs, which can accommodate 20 students for a four-month session, have waiting lists. Electrical is the most popular, he said, because of the potential opportunities inmates see in the field.
California Prison Industry Authority (CALPIA) CEO Charles Pattillo said inmates in the state’s Folsom Women’s Facility construction skills training programs can make themselves even more attractive to potential employers by learning computer-aided design (CAD). He said the authority has partnered with leading AEC software company Autodesk, which provides CALPIA with product discounts and offers courses in some of the industry's most used software programs — AutoCAD, Inventor and Revit.
“We thought it would make the ladies even more marketable if they not only knew how to build something but knew how to design it first,’ he said.
Once the inmates are proficient in CAD, Pattillo said, they can gain work experience in the agency’s modular furniture division. "They could be spending an additional year actually using the skills working for us," he said. "And by doing that, it gets them that work experience."
Benefits for employers
When a contractor hires an ex-offender, however, the benefits aren’t reserved just for the students. Battle-Bryant said many construction employers are unaware of the perks afforded those who hire former inmates.
First, the federal government will bond the employee for free for six months. The bonds cover stealing, embezzlement or other acts of dishonesty. Local incentives vary, but, at the federal level is the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, worth up to $2,400 per ex-felon.
Meanwhile, some states offer a tax credit of 65% of the ex-offender’s first year of wages, up to $20,000. State workforce development agencies are typically where contractors can find out if their states offer similar tax breaks.
But tax credit may be a small incentive for the work involved in hiring ex-offenders. “This is not a high-volume proposition,” Battle-Bryant said.
During the last year, UIG hired nine people from a prison training program, and seven are still with the company. Battle-Bryant said the vetting that is involved prior to hiring is a painstaking and time-consuming one — i.e. making sure the ex-offender has reliable transportation, looking over records of behavior and recommendations, deciding if the crime that landed the individual behind bars eliminates that person from being a good fit — so those hires are never a rush job.
There are limits, though, to the type of projects that ex-offenders might be able to work, so contractors need to keep that in mind. Work at any site that requires a security background check such as military installations, airports and banks often exclude those individuals. But, Herold said, most companies can find a spot for workers with a criminal background.
Careers in construction craft trades, Cotter said, provide former inmates with a way to earn a sustainable and livable wage, which is a major factor in helping them avoid the criminal activity that could land them back in prison one day.
And for contractors, ex-offenders offer a pipeline of steady workers.
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