By Mai P. Tran
Torres was part of a cohort of 21 men, all inmates at the facility, who were graduating from the New York City Department of Correction (NYCDOC)’s new green technology program, “Working I.T. Out.” In the three months before their graduation from the program, these men spent five hours per day for five days a week at Rikers Island training and preparing for jobs—considered “green” through the use of eco-friendly materials and methods—in construction, weatherization, electricity, and more.
Working I.T. Out’s job readiness training, which focuses in part on hard skills directly related to job operations and functions, is delivered in partnership with Hostos Community College in the Bronx, while the New York City Department of Education teaches participants essential computer literacy skills. Soft skills training, such as how to talk appropriately with customers and be a team player in the workplace, is provided by STRIVE International.
“This [aspect of the training] enforces professional behavior and personal responsibility,” said Phil Weinberg, the president and CEO of STRIVE, “and helps make success possible by focusing on the deeply embedded issues that have prevented achievement in the past.”
Participants in Working I.T. Out plan their career goals and get job placement assistance from STRIVE employment specialists, who actively seek and develop job opportunities for program participants by building relationships with community leaders, organizations, and employers.
“The key to this partnership is include [employers] in the process early on,” said Ana Billingsley, a NYCDOC program manager overseeing Working I.T. Out.
Envirolution, for example, a national green energy education and job training nonprofit, and Dudley and Associates, a certified “green” electrical contractor, conduct an orientation for participants at Rikers Island to explain green technology careers, the post-release training and internship opportunities they offer, and answer any questions participants may have.
“When employers have an opportunity to get to know potential employees over the course of three months [and] see what they are learning in the classroom and speak to them about their interests, the actual hiring is a much smoother process,” Billingsley said.
Preparing for a Job
After job readiness training, STRIVE assists participants through the often anxiety-filled process of job hunts, interviews, and placements, both before and after release from Rikers Island. Mock interviews, for example, help tackle all questions, including the tough ones about criminal histories. “They tell us to focus and highlight our work skills,” said JuanCamilo Bran, a program graduate. “With questions about our criminal record, [we know to] keep it short.”
But an employment specialist’s job isn’t always easy, according to Cecelia Hemingway, director of programs at STRIVE. Some employers have concerns have about hiring individuals with criminal histories, she said, so employment specialists take a proactive approach in educating them. “When equipped with the right soft and hard skills,” Billingsley added, “A person returning home from jail is just as qualified as any other applicant. Our graduates are focused, motivated, and eager to get back to work.”
The program “gives you the confidence you need to face your fears,” said Troy Bell (pictured left), a graduate of the first Working I.T. Out cohort, who is now employed as an information technology specialist at Dudley and Associates and attended the March 24 graduation to support his peers.
‘Success’ in Numbers
Job placement numbers point to the early success of the program. Since its inauguration in October 2014, five participants have been placed in full-time jobs, six people in paid internships, and twelve others are actively interviewing with employers. Employees placed in jobs through the program earn between $10 and $14 per hour, above New York State’s minimum of $8.75.
And some of these opportunities have been secured quickly, perhaps in part because Envirolution and Dudley and Associates agreed to set aside ten jobs total for graduates from Working I.T. Out. Bell, for example, secured his position with Dudley and Associates within three days of his release. Ernest Williams (pictured right), a graduate of the second cohort, had an internship lined up through Envirolution at the time of the ceremony.
In the audience, family and friends and corrections and program staff smiled as the men spoke of their achievements and their hopes for their future. A number of the men were returning home with their families that day, while others were scheduled for release from Rikers Island within the six-month period following the graduation.
“I am determined to succeed,” said graduate Albert Dyre.
Working I.T. Out is funded by the U.S Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance under its Second Chance Act (SCA) Technology-Based Career Training Program. The SCA program seeks to increase the employability of people who are involved with the criminal justice system by establishing and providing these career-training programs during before their release from prison, jail, or juvenile facilities, with connections to follow-up services after release.