CA FWD: Union Training Partnership Aims to Give Formerly Incarcerated More Than a Job

When Thomas Reese III was 15 years old, he made a poor decision that led to an 18 years to life sentence. After 17-1/2 years, he was released and needed to get his life on track. He found construction work, which kept him and his family afloat, but didn’t provide benefits or job security.

He found a chance at a better life with the newly-formed Los Angeles Reentry Workforce Collaborative, which trains the formerly incarcerated for union jobs in construction. The Collaborative is a 12-week program that starts with life skills classes provided by the Anti-Recidivism Coalition (ARC) and moves to construction-based instruction at Los Angeles Trade Tech College (LATTC). Upon graduation, each participant is placed in a union job through the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO (LA Fed).

“We all know the barriers of folks coming out of juvenile hall, jail, or prison face with a felony on their record,” said ARC founder Scott Budnick. “So just getting an ordinary job isn’t easy, and there are lots of job training programs all over Los Angeles, but almost all of them end in a certificate. They don’t end in a job.”

Besides providing the life skills classes, ARC screens and selects the program participants as well as provides a case manager to follow the class through completion. “The idea was, ‘Let’s completely turn this upside down on its head and not just create a job training program that ends in a job -- a guaranteed job -- but let’s create a job training program that ends in a career for life,’” said Budnick.

Reese was a member of the inaugural class of 20, which graduated in October. He is now an apprentice with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) earning benefits including a pension.

“Today I feel that being in a union, I have security," said Reese. "I have something I can come home to and offer my wife, health and dental (insurance) to where it’s something substantial.”

Rusty Hicks, executive secretary-treasurer of LA Fed said they work with both local unions and contractors to find ways to overcome the added barriers faced by the formerly incarcerated. Some of the participants didn’t have a high school diploma, driver’s license or had been homeless.

"This is not just a criminal record, it usually comes with a whole host of other issues that are related," said Hicks. “So there are a lot of social life skills that have to go along with the technical skills that comes with these programs.”

The first class included former inmates from Los Angeles County Juvenile Hall, Los Angeles County Jail, California Division of Juvenile Justice and the California Department of Corrections of Rehabilitation.

“Those kids were extremely motivated because they went through a boot camp before they came to us,” said John Olszewski, a carpentry instructor in charge of the pre-apprenticeship program at LATTC. “There’s a lot of (construction) work going on right now and the contractors and the unions are looking for qualified, motivated people, exactly these students.”

According to LATTC President Laurence Frank, working with reentry students isn’t new. “Trade Tech prides itself on being a second chance institution,” said Frank, adding that at least 4,000 reentry students are enrolled. “What’s exciting about this opportunity is that the role of the County Fed and the building trades created an environment where every person that successfully completed the class or the program, there was a commitment to placing them, giving them the opportunity to be successful.”

Of the 20 graduates, 10 are currently working and the remaining will be placed before the holidays and all are now union apprentices. The Collaboration is currently planning for its second class to begin in the first quarter of 2017.

“I don’t believe that the vast majority of workers that are on the job today or those that are just being released from prison and are looking for an opportunity are looking for a handout," said Hicks. "I simply think they’re looking for a hand up. And that’s really what we’re trying to give them.”

Training and placing the formerly incarcerated in good, middle class jobs not only strengthens the region’s workforce and economy, it also is one of the key factors of successful reentry. And a successful reentry is one way to lower incarceration rates.

Reese agreed, ”If a young man or lady can’t find means of supporting themselves, then they’re going to do something silly or irrational to find those means. If you give a person a job, something that supports him and puts food on his table and a roof over his head, and his percentage of staying out and not going back to prison is greater because he has something to look forward to now.”