POSTED ON APRIL 3, 2013:
The Working Theory
Federal funds help felons find jobs
Out of prison for two weeks, 54-year-old Tirey Arnold recognized a struggle ahead.
"The hard thing is to get an employer to trust me," Arnold said, taking a break from a recent three-hour class at Tulsa Reentry One-Stop.
The job basics training is part of a new effort funded by a $1 million federal Department of Labor grant. The One-Stop program opened Oct. 15, occupying a recently renovated space in an old shopping center at 533 E. 36th St. N., just a few blocks from N. Peoria Avenue.
Open only to those released from prison within six months, One-Stop offers training in basic work skills to ex-offenders, many of whom have a spotty job history or lack much education.
Arnold's most recent conviction was for larceny of merchandise, but he said he's been in and out of prison basically since he was 16. He listed robbery, burglary and drug possession when asked his crimes.
For him, the program offers a safe haven.
"All the people I know are in some kind of way addicted to drugs or addicted to life in the streets," Arnold said, describing One-Stop as offering "the opportunity to get away from the environment that has always led me into trouble."
Those enrolled receive job leads, and the program has on-site staff from Oklahoma Workforce, the agency that helps job seekers of all kinds.
But One-Stop also aggressively recruits employers.
"We're, in effect, a free staffing agency," said Dolores Verbonitz, the program manager overseeing the effort on behalf of the Community Services Council, the Tulsa nonprofit that was one of only 18 organizations -- out of 189 applicants -- nationwide to receive the specialized grant.
A partnership with the Metropolitan Tulsa Urban League provides life coaching, and, like the name implies, the center also offers aid to those who need help with mental health or substance abuse recovery, for example.
To employers, the pitch is, "when they come to you, a lot of those barriers are going to be already managed," Verbonitz said. "And then our case managers and our employment specialists will continue to work with them and you for an entire year, so that if issues arise, you don't have to deal with them yourself. You can call us and we can help you with that."
Mass-mailed fliers, open house invitations, radio ads and lots of cold calling to employers have all been part of the strategy to encourage businesses to at least consider hiring a felon.
Funding for the endeavor came about because of a stark statistic: Three out of five ex-offenders leaving prison will again face criminal charges within three years, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
Spending dollars to help someone find work makes sense from an economic perspective, according to the Department of Labor -- if a steady job helps keeps him out of prison.
Bill Martinson, chief executive officer of Precision Sintered Parts, hired someone from the program just a couple of weeks ago.
Martinson said he heard about a similar effort from another employer elsewhere in Oklahoma, so he inquired to find out if Tulsa had a program. He said he's pleased with the approach taken by One-Stop.
"They wanted to make sure that it worked for everybody," he said.
Verbonitz said that it comes to employers, "we're not going to send somebody to them that we don't feel is going to meet their need, because they'll never call us back again if we do."
The program recognizes that employers' "primary need is getting qualified employees, and so that's what we want to help them do, is get them qualified employees," Verbonitz said.
Out of 90 people officially enrolled, 40 have jobs, Verbonitz said. Ex-offenders have found work in warehouses and at construction sites, as well as in janitorial, call center, welding and food service jobs.
Some are young, but most are older. Out of the 90, only four are under 25 years old, Verbonitz said. Twenty are women. More than 85 percent have either a high school diploma or a GED, she said.
The goal is to help 60 percent of those enrolled find a job and keep it for at least a year, while also providing skilled training opportunities to enrollees.
The grant is basically for two years, but Verbonitz said the council will seek out more funding to continue the effort.
Arnold, just barely two weeks removed from an 11-month prison stint, emphasized how he's changed.
"At this stage of my life, I can be trusted," he said.
Morris Jones, a former gang member, has been out of federal prison for about five months after being convicted for gun possession. At 27, it was his second time in prison, he said.
"You got some guys come out of prison, they don't want nothing else but what they did before they went to prison. I don't want that, because I know what it leads to," Jones said.
He has had some luck finding employment, most recently a packaging job through a temp agency, but was once again searching for a job.
"It's very urgent," Jones said. "I mean, a person like me, if I'm going to just be honest, I know what I can do, you know, even though I don't want to do it."
Jones called it a "mental game" to stay on the right path, and he didn't hesitate when asked what's helped the most from the One-Stop program.
"The support," Jones said, describing how "you can count on somebody in this facility contacting you, checking on you, asking you how you doing, how things is going."
Arnold also described the importance of being around staff -- some of whom have a criminal record -- and also those enrolled: "I get to meet like-minded ex-convicts that can be positive role models in my life."
Martinson said his company has been "very happy with what we've seen" from the worker hired to help around the manufacturing shop.
"To disqualify somebody just based on a record may be denying us and them an opportunity to benefit," he said.
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