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Trained behind bars, ex-prisoners assist in filling ranks of skilled aftermarket job vacancies

Friday, December 7, 2018 - 08:00
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Seeking a sense of redemption after incarceration, former inmates can be highly motivated to become productive employees. They frequently come well-trained through behind-bars automotive instruction taught in conjunction with local vocational schools.

Business owners eager to fill vacant staffing slots amid a national unemployment rate of just 3.9 percent have been increasingly willing to tap into this resource.

Tidewater Community College automotive instructor Horace Linton with students at the new Priority Technical Training Center for prison inmates, which is being fully funded by Virginia’s Priority Automotive chain of car dealerships.
Photo from Tidewater Community College.

Statistics regarding the pool of available workers are stark. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, there are now 900,000 more across-the-board job openings than job seekers, with a “quits rate” – people who voluntarily leave their place of employment – at a 17-year high of 2.7 percent, up from 1.9 percent in 2009.

Incarceration rates are equally troublesome as the country’s prison population has grown 700 percent since the 1970s. The U.S. accounts for 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the global prison population; more than 96 percent of these inmates are eventually released, and many of them ran afoul of the law for non-violent crimes such as drug- and alcohol-related offenses.

Inmates participating in automotive education are typically held to strict behavior protocols and subject to quick expulsion from the program if written up with a misconduct citation.

Should you be interested in exploring the possibility of hiring a freed prison or jail inmate, a good starting point for beginning your research is reaching out to local judicial and law enforcement officials, community colleges and vocational schools because of the mutual institutional affiliations driving correctional center training programs.

At Oregon’s award-winning Precision Body & Paint, with two locations in Beaverton and Bend, owner Ron Reichen reports that in addition to the company’s mainstream instruction “we also do some in-house training through our local community college’s extension program at our state penitentiary, and we currently employ several former inmates that were trained through this program.”

Nevada’s Silver State Industries (SSI) initiative is an inmate-staffed and professionally administered auto restoration program “designed to reduce inmate idleness, teach job skills with certification and instill a good work ethic, reduce incarceration cost and provide high quality products at competitive prices.”

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Vehicles of all sizes and configurations, such as motorcycles, boats, trailers, buses and vans, are prepped, painted, upholstered and upgraded for purchase by the general public. “From minor repairs to complete ‘body off-frame’ jobs – including interiors and tops – we can handle it all,” according to divisional Chief of Operations and Marketing Coordinator Bill Quenga.

Priority Automotive, a car dealership with 14 outlets throughout the Norfolk, Va. region, partnered with Tidewater Community College (TCC) and the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office to recently unveil the new state-of-the-art Priority Technical Training Center.

Two years in the making and located just behind the Priority Infiniti dealership in Chesapeake, the center consists of 12 repair bays for preparing 16 non-violent offenders at a time for technician careers through TCC’s two-year certified program.

Trainees attend class full-time two days a week and work at Priority dealerships three days a week. After successfully completing their second semester they will be offered full-time jobs at one of the dealerships.

Participants also have the opportunity to continue their education, earn new certifications and earn an Associate of Applied Science in Automotive Technology degree from TCC.

“The Priority program is the latest example of TCC focusing on access to educational opportunities and responding to the needs of the automotive industry to train additional technicians,” notes Gregory DeCinque, the college’s president. “Ultimately this will not only improve people’s lives but also our regional economy.”

“Teaching non-violent offenders to make a good, honest living and put their past in the rearview mirror is good for our communities, good for our law enforcement agencies and good for Priority,” says dealership President & CEO Dennis Ellmer. “This may seem like an unlikely partnership, but it just makes perfect sense.” The training facility is fully funded by Priority.

Pointing out how industry businesses “across the country scramble to find highly skilled auto technicians to service vehicles that grow more technologically advanced by the day,” Ellmer says he got the idea during a trip to Fiji when he met a tour guide who earned a tourism degree while incarcerated in a local jail. “I thought, ‘Wow, we have to do something like this back home.’”

Upon sharing his idea with former TCC President Edna Baehre-Kolovani, who enthusiastically embraced the plan, the pair approached the Norfolk Sheriff’s Office, where Lt. Col. Mike O’Toole helped make concept a reality.

“We have people coming out of our jail with few opportunities for worthwhile employment because of their past,” O’Toole says. “And with no way to find a decent job and make an honest living, they sometimes resort to old habits and wind up right back here in jail. There’s both a social and financial cost to that for taxpayers. It can be a revolving door that just keeps spinning. This program is designed to put an end to that.”

It costs Norfolk taxpayers an average of $26,000 to house a single inmate for one year, according to Norfolk Sheriff Joe Baron.

“What we know is over 96 percent of our offenders are coming back to our community,” he says. “We also know former offenders are less likely to return to jail if they have gainful employment at the time of their release. By funding the cost to build the center and pay the trainees’ tuition, what Priority is doing here is nothing short of life-changing for these inmates. And great for the community.”

Baron observes that “this is a logical next step. Combining our work-release program with an educational vocational program is a natural next step in promoting rehabilitation and saving tax dollars by reducing the number of people who return to jail.”

Ellmer adds that the program is not just about saving taxpayers money or filling jobs at his dealership. “This is about giving these people a sense of worth, a second chance and an opportunity to live the right way and do the right thing. We think that’s good for everyone.”

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