Building a second chance for job hunters with felony convictions

Ryan Kelley, 35, builds a "z wall" on March 12, 2014, at the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh in Wilkinsburg, Pa. Kelley said he enjoys the work and is excited for the opportunity to enter the job market and earn a decent wage. (Julia Rendleman/Pittsburgh Post-Gazette/MCT)

Months out of jail and several weeks into the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh's masonry training program, Ryan Kelley and Scott Snyder aren't making any excuses.

Kelley's decision to drive with a suspended license and the crash that seriously injured at least one person are burdens to be carried on his conscience and possibly his criminal record for the rest of his life. The aggravated assault, weapons and vandalism charges staining Snyder's record are accepted repercussions of his own decisions.

Caked in layers of concrete and brick dust left from the training class, which pays $50 per week over the course of 10 weeks, Kelley and Snyder weren't asking for absolution.

They only asked that, once the program ends, some employer could look beyond their felony convictions and give them second chances to earn an honest living.

"(The job search) was horrible," said Snyder, who along with Kelley is a resident at Pittsburgh-based halfway house Renewal Inc. "All that was open was fast food. It would take forever to get out of the halfway house."

"I went to big corporations and small places," said Kelley. "Before I got (in the training program), I was just trying to get out of the (Renewal) building – so I would apply for anything. It's hard."

In their cases, referrals from a Renewal counselor, a face-to-face conversation and a three-day trial period with Trade Institute founder Steve Shelton were enough to put the men back on a path toward gainful employment. But for millions with felony convictions hoping to build careers, getting a foot in the door – let alone a sit-down with a CEO – is often a discouragingly uphill battle.

The 2008 Urban Institute Justice Policy Center study, "Employment after Prison: A Longitudinal Study of Releasees in Three States," reported only 45 percent of participants were employed eight months after their release, despite 65 percent being hired at some point.

For a population estimated at between 12.3 million and 13.9 million five years ago by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a few months out of the workforce can equal years of separation in career advancement. The 2010 Pew Economic Policy report "Collateral Costs: Incarceration's Effect on Economic Mobility" noted that a former inmate's incarceration reduces annual work time by nine weeks per year and diminishes annual earnings by 40 percent.

"People who break the law need to be held accountable and pay their debt to society. At the same time, the collateral costs of locking up 2.3 million people are piling higher and higher," said Adam Gelb, director of the Pew Center on the States Public Safety Performance Project.

Beyond the hurdles of criminal background checks and felon-screening job applications, many of the formerly incarcerated had fallen behind peers in several demographic measures even before they went to jail. A 2005 study by University of California professor Joan Petersilia found 40 percent of state and federal prisoners lacked a high school diploma or GED, nearly one-third had a physical or mental disability, and more than half reported using drugs during the month they were arrested.

Taken all together, it's enough to solidify a lifetime of second-class citizenship, said Shelton, whose Trade Institute operates out of Hosanna House in Wilkinsburg, Pa., and provides 10 weeks of training for 10 students at least twice per year.

"The way I look at it is these guys go to jail at a really young age – 17, 18, 19 years old. Then they get out at 26, 27, 28 years old. They don't have any education. They're a convicted felon; they don't have driver's licenses. What part of this system is set up for them to succeed?" he said.

General workplace policies surrounding individuals with felony convictions have been very guarded, but many of those barriers are slowly beginning to fall, according to Roberta Meyers, executive director of the New York-based advocacy organization, National H.I.R.E. (Helping Individuals with criminal records Re-enter through Employment) Network.

Small- to medium-sized businesses that have traditionally taken the lead when it comes to hiring people with criminal backgrounds are stepping up in even greater numbers, according to Meyers. Large corporations are also starting to get on board by eliminating questions about criminal history on applications and by working directly with organizations designed to bring individuals with felony convictions back into the workforce.

Partially attributing the shift to a 2012 Equal Employment Opportunity Commission update of discrimination laws surrounding pre-employment inquiries for the formerly incarcerated, Meyers said the single greatest factor in helping gain employment could be skills training acquired during time in prison.

In Pennsylvania, the PA Correctional Industries program offers job training that includes printing, textiles, housekeeping, engraving and personal care among its offering of more than 16,000 items and services. The program does not provide direct job referrals, but the skills acquired through such programs are giving former inmates across the country a leg up in the job search.

"There are a lot more opportunities that are developing and that have developed over the years, and a lot of that has to do with the type of training available in the corrections system," Meyers said.

Outside of the system, trade programs that cater to individuals with felony convictions are gaining traction in sectors seeking trained up-and-comers to replace aging workers.

In Allegheny County, the Department of Human Services' Jail Collaborative has grown from a standard community re-integration program in 2000 to a partnership with community service providers designed to train the formerly incarcerated in technical fields.

Last year, the Jail Collaborative's Career Tech program received $600,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice to enroll 100 inmates per year in technical training classes before and after they are released to set them up for jobs in energy, construction and other related fields. The Trade Institute of Pittsburgh, New Century Careers, Community College of Allegheny County and the A. Philip Randolph Institute have signed on to take the lead with the training classes.

Shelton pointed out just how much the economy at large has to gain from the effort.

The veteran craftsman, who founded Shelton Masonry and Contracting in 2002, noticed around 2009 that his best workers were aging and the pool of trainees ready to take their place was evaporating quickly.

Taking the matter into his own hands, Shelton created the Trade Institute that year with his own savings and the assistance of the University of Pittsburgh's Center for Entrepreneurial Excellence and Hosanna House, which provided space to create a workroom for training free of charge.

The idea to fold people with felony convictions into the program occurred once Shelton realized that on any given day Renewal housed at least 600 able-bodied residents in the region that needed jobs before moving out on their own. Noting a national recidivism rate of nearly 70 percent and tens of thousands of dollars per year needed to house an inmate, he decided proper training could both revitalize his industry and disrupt the culture of rejection surrounding people with felony convictions seeking work.

"I know contractors are looking for good guys, and we have guys that are just sitting in jails and a 70 percent recidivism rate. If we can spend $50,000 or $60,000 a year to keep a guy in jail, why can't we spend $5,000 or $6,000 to teach a guy a trade?" he said.

By this year, after the program had graduated 75 trainees and put 55 of them into full-time construction jobs paying an average of $12 per hour, Shelton said his industry peers have begun to understand his vision. With the institute's plans to expand to a new facility in the Pittsburgh area and introduce welding and roofing training into the program sometime this year, trainees could soon have even more valuable skills.

Even still, Shelton said some companies dismiss outright the plan to hire anyone with a felony on their record.

For Rashad Byrdsong, CEO of Pittsburgh social service agency Community Empowerment Association, outright dismissal would at least be honest.

All too often, he said, large companies pay lip service to discrimination laws by giving people with felony convictions job interviews with no intentions to hire any. He said most trainees in the organization's Strategic Training and Employment Program – which teaches construction, carpentry and other trades – end up with small businesses or nonprofits because larger organizations have little incentive to change.

"There is still a lot of stigma surrounding ex-offenders. Within the broader business and corporate community, (a company) might interview based on the law but many times resumes are tossed," he said.

Yet even without incentives beyond a need for manpower, some companies give individuals with felony convictions a chance to explain their circumstances, said Carol Washington, executive director of Pittsburgh-based social service organization North Shore Community Alliance.

With 35 to 40 percent of clients in the organization's workforce development program having some form of criminal history, Washington said the majority of employers that reach out to her know they might encounter ex-felons and are ready to hear their stories.

And while federal laws can prohibit ex-felons from holding certain positions, Washington said job-seekers shouldn't consider any organization off limits.

"They wouldn't let someone charged with stealing cars be a valet at the casino, but they can do other things like housekeeping or maintenance," she said.

Once the opportunity to share their story is presented, Washington said individuals with felonies should go with a mix of honesty about the past, optimism for the future and pragmatism about the outcome.

"They have to be patient and remember the process is a marathon, not a sprint, especially when you're coming from a situation where anyone can judge you," she said. "They have to understand that process, be extremely patient with it and forgive themselves because we've forgiven them from the moment they walk in the front door."

With only a few days left at the Trade Institute, Snyder was hoping to get a job with Shelton Masonry and Contracting, but he is ready to tell his story to the right hiring manager so that he can move out of Renewal and on with his life.

As important as that transformation will be for him, the impact could be even greater on his family and community, said Ann Dugan, founder of University of Pittsburgh Institute for Entrepreneurial Excellence. Decades into her career helping small businesses find employees, Dugan said she never realized the impact a job could have on someone with a felony conviction until she saw one of Shelton's students get paid for the first time.

"He got his first paycheck and started sobbing. He said he was the first person in three generations of his family that's ever gotten a paycheck," she said.

"When you think about his story, we're not only changing his life, we're changing the lives of his children and his children's children. His whole lineage will change because of this opportunity."


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