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Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Jobs for Felons: They Want Something Better

COURTESY PHOTO | Charles participated in the STEP Forward program, which runs through the McHenry County Workforce Network and is designed to fill local employers’ needs while giving ex-offenders an opportunity for employment. “I’m so grateful for them,” Charles said.

by Susan W. Murray, The Woodstock Independent

Charles, a 41-year-old McHenry County resident, grew up “in a diverse community where there were gangs and drugs.”

By the age of 13, he was caught up in both. At 17, he went to prison for the first time at the Joliet Correctional Facility. He spent 13 years of his life incarcerated.

“There were many instances when I should have been dead,” Charles said. “At one point, I was, almost.”

Upon his last release, he realized how tired he was of the life he had been living.

“I wanted to do better for myself,” he said.

Up against long odds

Minimum wage jobs filled the gaps between prison stretches, but they didn’t add up to a career path. While considering getting a commercial driver’s license, Charles heard about the STEP Forward program – Stateline Transforming Employment Potential.

Launched in 2018, the program grew as a response to the needs of McHenry County employers.

As a business services representative at the McHenry County Workforce Network, which assists job seekers in finding positions, Thomas Faber tries “to find out what local employers need.”

That need, especially as the economy improved after 2010, Faber said, was for “more and more skilled workers.”

In pondering that problem, Faber came to a somewhat surprising solution.

“I don’t think that we’ve considered people who have criminal backgrounds,” he thought.

The FBI’s centralized database lists 70 million people in the United States who have criminal records. That’s nearly 28 million more than have bachelor’s degrees and represents 21 percent of the population.

“We need to be open to the possibility that ex-offenders can be good workers,” Faber said.

Workshops start process 

A board member of the Stateline Society of Human Resource Management, Faber took his idea to other board members, hoping it could address employers’ needs and help ex-offenders.

The board reacted enthusiastically and set up a STEP Forward Steering Committee. Faber and the committee created a five-week series of workshops to be run through the Workforce Network to help ex-offenders plan a return to work, identify a career path, write a résumé, and handle themselves in job interviews, with tips on how to keep a job and advance at a company.

McHenry County College supported the program with pre-apprentice training and then created boot camps – short-term training in various fields, including manufacturing.

Faber recruited volunteer presenters from MCC, local employers, human resource departments, and state and government agencies.

“The first workshop had two participants and six volunteers,” Faber said. “We outnumbered them.”

But the word got out, and soon more participants were signing up for the five-session workshops.

Combining work, training

Faber sits down with each ex-offender who comes to the Workforce Network, including some convicted of armed robbery and murder, but he is comfortable meeting face-to-face.

“A majority of them have gone through a transformation,” Faber said. “They want something better.”

He is less interested in the crimes his interviewees have committed and more “in how transparent they are.”

“If they’re honest, that’s someone I can work with and who an employer can work with,” Faber explained.

After Charles completed his workshop sessions, he identified an interest in CNC – computer numerical control of machine tools. After starting classes on lathe and mill operation through the Technology and Manufacturing Association, Charles heard from Faber about an opportunity to work at Variable Operations Technologies (Vo-Tech, Inc.) in Crystal Lake for 20 hours a week, getting on-the-job training while continuing his education.

Afraid that people would look down on him for his many tattoos and his “vernacular,” Charles dedicated himself to being on time, paying attention to detail, and being a hardworking employee. He “always had a strong work ethic,” he said, even when he was involved in the drug trade.

“This time, putting my best foot forward led me in the right direction,” he said.

When Charles finished his classes, he was hired full time as a CNC technician at Vo-Tech.

The job came with a steady income, insurance, vacation time, and a gym where employees may work out. During the pandemic, Vo-Tech’s production of computer-automated machining systems for the nuclear, healthcare, agriculture, and food industries meant that he was considered an essential employee.

“That was a great feeling,” he said. “I take pride in going to work every day.”

Creating believers

Adam Furman, Vo-Tech’s operations manager, said that four of his company’s 24 employees have come from the STEP Forward program.

His sister and fellow Vo-Tech employee, Jennifer Chrachol, first heard of the program. She learned that companies that hire and train someone from STEP Forward are eligible for cost reimbursement and subsidies for the person’s salary.

While acknowledging the financial pluses of the program, Furman said he would advise other companies not to sign on “just to benefit from the program.”

“Hiring people is always a risk,” Furman said, and he praised Faber for the job he does to screen people before recommending them to a local employer.

“These people are hungry to learn, to get a job, and to start a new direction in their lives,” Furman said. “It’s hard to find that sort of person, even without a criminal background.”

Furman makes it a point to go out on the floor and talk with his employees each day before heading to his office.

“You have to get to know the people and build a relationship with them to create trust,” Furman said. “We’re trying to be that company that gives people a second chance.”

Plaudits and plans

Faber said he resisted the urge to judge the STEP Forward’s success by “looking at the numbers.”

“I value the good fit and the retention,” he said.

He also does not measure how long it takes the workshops’ participants to get a job.

“All are individuals, and some are more ready than others,” he said.

This year, STEP Forward received the Pinnacle Award from the national HR society in Washington, D.C., in recognition of the initiative’s positive impact on the local HR and business communities.

Since receiving the award, Faber has heard from HR society chapters in Rockford and Springfield that want to replicate the model.

STEP Forward recently wrapped up its fall workshops – held via Zoom – with three participants who have career dreams as diverse as robotic systems engineer, a paralegal, and nursing.

The emphasis is to “think bigger,” Faber said.

“Ex-offenders will have better success if they resist taking just anything and look for the job that’s the right fit,” he said.

Faber plans a second employer workshop for next summer to encourage local businesses to hire STEP Forward participants, familiarizing business owners with the tax credits, grants, and other funding available and having attorneys on hand to talk about legal issues.

This year, Charles received an individual achievement award from the Illinois Workforce Partnership for overcoming barriers and getting back to work. He will soon start a TMA apprenticeship to be a certified CNC machinist and has been inspired to create TikTok videos, such as “Top Jobs for Ex-Felons in 2021,” in an effort to reduce recidivism.

“I want to be a man of value,” Charles said, “a man who has knowledge in his industry and can make his company better.”

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