Apprenticeship Shaped My Post-Prison Life — Employers Will Benefit from Others Like Me

Partnerships between employers and prison industries are a win for companies, the economy, and aspiring workers after incarceration.

Published apr. 28, 2022

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By working together to offer Registered Apprenticeship programs to men and women who are currently or formerly incarcerated, prisons and employers can give people with criminal records the opportunity for a fresh start while building a pipeline of motivated, dedicated employees.

Many reentry programs prepare people to work when they exit prison, but their job prospects usually are low-wage, static jobs that do not lead to economic advancement. Apprenticeship is an earn-and-learn training model that builds in-demand skills and provides a clear pathway to a good job with family-supporting wages, opportunities for career advancement, and a high chance of economic mobility. On average, a worker earns $72,000 per year upon completing a Registered Apprenticeship program. And 92 percent of apprentices stay with their employer after the apprenticeship ends.

I have experienced the power of apprenticeship first-hand: After spending 10 years in the Wisconsin prison system, I built a family-supporting career through Registered Apprenticeship and am now positioned to help thousands of other Americans find careers through my role as director of JFF’s National Innovation Hub for Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility in Registered Apprenticeship.

My story serves as an example of the commitment and persistence of the many people looking for opportunities after prison and the benefits to employers who are willing to extend those opportunities. Like a lot of people, I landed a few odd jobs when I left prison. Friends and family encouraged me to pursue a career path with opportunities for growth. When I applied for a construction crew, I overheard the reviewers sifting through the applications to see whether “the box” had been checked to indicate that someone had a criminal record. One said, “I would never hire someone who’s been to prison.”

Thankfully, the project superintendent sitting nearby spoke up and said he would have no problem hiring someone with a record. “If someone is desperate enough to steal," he said, "they’re desperate enough to come to work every day to make money.”

The superintendent’s remark encouraged me to continue filling out the application and to speak directly to him about my past and my motivation to be a hard worker for his company.

I was hired, and after proving my commitment to the work, I was placed into a Registered Apprenticeship program with Laborers International Union of North America (LIUNA) Local 113 as a construction craft laborer. The superintendent’s decision to hire a person with a record gave me a lifetime career and the industry a skilled tradesman.

For the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year and the more than 9 million Americans who go in and out of the nation’s 3,100 county jails, these life-changing opportunities shouldn’t have to come down to luck.

Because of this one chance encounter, I was able to forge a career path: From a Registered Apprenticeship in construction, to the director of apprenticeship in Wisconsin, to the director of JFF’s National Innovation Hub. I am able to provide for myself, my wife, and my children, and also to make changes to diversify Registered Apprenticeship and help make it more equitable, inclusive, and accessible for people like me and others who have been underrepresented in the industry.

For the more than 600,000 people released from prison each year and the more than 9 million Americans who go in and out of the nation’s 3,100 county jails, these life-changing opportunities shouldn’t have to come down to luck. Rather, prison industries and apprenticeship employers must create intentional partnerships for the benefit of all.

We can look to several existing opportunities that would be a strong fit for apprenticeship programming:

  • Correctional Industries programs are a blend of business and government, using private industry tools and techniques and paying inmate workers to provide a public service. Inmates build valuable skills while earning stipends and incentives. These programs are revenue-producing, supported by sales to state agencies, county and local governments, and nonprofit organizations.
  • The Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program, operated by the Federal Bureau of Prisons and several state correctional systems, is a variation on correctional industries and is governed by a federal certification process. These programs provide another excellent opportunity to build occupational and workplace skills. These programs partner with private-sector companies to offer inmates real work (and real pay) producing goods or services at prevailing local wages.
  • Mississippi Prison Industries (MPI) offers inmates the opportunity to obtain skills and work experience to support economic self-sufficiency. With JFF’s assistance, MPI recently began an advanced manufacturing Registered Apprenticeship program.

This work doesn’t stop at the release gates. More than 50 percent of people who exit prison are reincarcerated due to tremendous obstacles reintegrating into society. Over 27 percent of people who were formerly incarcerated are unemployed, and previous incarceration reduces chances of employment for Black people, especially women, at a higher rate than for white people. Most people who are released cannot afford to pay for or take time off to go to local training programs when they have the demands of court costs and fines, rent, child care, and other living expenses.

Apprenticeship can give pivotal opportunities to the people who need them most. I was one of them. Let’s build the path for more.

Registered Apprenticeships offer a practical way for people who were formerly incarcerated to fulfill their obligations to immediately support themselves and their family by earning an income while taking the initial steps to a career path. To provide these opportunities to more individuals, prison industries and employers can strengthen the pathways between existing apprenticeship programs and community-based reentry or work-release programs.

I am proud to lead JFF’s National Innovation Hub on DEIA in Registered Apprenticeship because we are working to provide the same opportunities to thousands that I was lucky enough to receive. Our Innovation Hub is equipped to help support the development of these apprenticeship programs within states and prison industries. Get connected with us to take the first steps toward changing lives and benefitting employers in your communities.

Apprenticeship can give pivotal opportunities to the people who need them most. I was one of them. Let’s build the path for more.

Please join our upcoming event on May 4-5, Getting Serious: Apprenticeship Equity Solutions for Employers and Sponsors. You’ll hear from a number of innovative organizations that are using apprenticeship to build skilled, diverse workforces.