Inmates trained, but skills don't translate into jobs

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Capital News Service
LANSING – Despite the Department of Corrections’ efforts to prepare inmates for the work force by offering vocational skills training, some experts who work with ex-inmates say their clients often don’t use such specialized training to find jobs in the Upper Peninsula.
John Cordell, public information officer for the department, said the prison system offers a wealth of programs focused on mechanics, auto body repair, horticulture, welding and more fields.
They’re designed to help ex-prisoners find employment after release.
“One thing we’re trying to do is prepare people for employee readiness and meet market demands,” he said. “We’ll continue to evaluate what programs we can provide to offer skills they can apply to success.”
Darrell Dixson, a resource specialist for the Great Lakes Recovery Centers in Manistique, said half of his clients are employed, but not because of skills learned behind bars.
The center is a nonprofit agency that offers treatment for addiction and behavioral health treatment and provides services to former prisoners in the U.P.
“What I attribute to my clients finding work is that they don’t care where they work. I get people who come out from making 35 to 40 cents a day to going to minimum wage, and it’s ok with them,” Dixson said.
That’s not to say that skilled trades aren’t useful, Dixson said, but ex-inmates can’t be picky because of the down economy.
Dixson works to connect ex-felons with jobs in Schoolcraft, Delta and Menominee counties. He said it may be difficult for prisons to cater to the job market with vocational programs because the work force varies from county to county.
“To come out with a license in a skill that the community has no work for, that just causes a sense of frustration,” he said.
Gernot Joachim, a resource specialist at the Great Lakes Recovery Centers in Houghton, said none of his clients came out with specialized training.
As for finding employment, he said there’s no advantage to receiving training while in prison.
“It’s more about being in the right place at the right time,” he said.
Joachim added that some ex-inmates return to specialties they had before serving time.
“Because of the felony on their record and with the state being in the condition it is, it makes it difficult for anyone to get a job,” he said.
Derrick Jones, executive director of the Michigan Prisoner Re-Entry Initiative, said Michigan Works! helps ex-inmates with strategies to show employers how they’ve changed, instead of focusing on their record.
One important strategy is preparing them to manage the social aspects of working, which he referred to as “soft skills.”
“They’ve been through a lot and they often come out hard. We work on their skills, to soften them up, so they can handle different customers, co-workers and stressful situations on the job,” Jones said.
“If you talk to employers, you can have all the technical skills in the world but if you don’t have the soft skills you won’t get the job,” he said.
According to Cordell, the Corrections Department goal is to help everyone who is able-bodied and willing prepare for a job after prison.
Joachim said ex-prisoners should take advantage of whatever opportunity is offered.
“They’ll take what’s available to them until something avails more along their liking,” Joachim said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.

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