If you go online and search for reentry initiatives, it is plain to see there are a myriad of initiatives in Indiana and across the country focused on connecting justice-involved populations with employment training and vocational opportunities. Amazing partners like Ivy Tech, Indiana Wesleyan University, trade associations and labor organizations are all conducting state of the art trainings in our prison system and achieving great outcomes. I intimately recall a woman who had gone through a welding program while incarcerated in southern Indiana and came and spoke to a group of employers about her experience. That same program and participant were also highlighted that year in Governor Holcomb’s State of the State address…
There remains a side of this world where these supports and programs have not yet found their way in… at least at the same meaningful scale… and that is the world of local jail and community corrections (aka work release). Due to the low average length of stay, different paths people take, propensity of bond and/or early release, and a myriad of technology and time restrictions this population has historically been unable to connect to large-scale and impactful employment-related programming. In Hamilton County I’ve been told over 8,000 people engage with our justice system each year. Meanwhile in the past 12 months we had over 60,000 open positions with local employers (49,000 of which had no degree requirement and paid a median of $18.26/hour).
Our hospitality training in partnership with Hamilton County Tourism has been working in the jail for almost a year. We’ve been able to place multiple candidates into positions, but even more importantly have helped show these men and women that people believe in them that they are not alone and that community partners and leaders are there to help make the next right step easier. While none of us can choose what path someone goes down, we can all play a role in helping to highlight a path to opportunity and make a step down that path the easier one to take than another driven by survival instinct, fear, and shame.
Programs in the jail like the TOWER therapeutic environment help provide wrap-around supports and connect individuals with peers looking to better their lives through recovery. By pairing employment/career coaching with services like these we can provide a springboard on which people can identify greater opportunity. We can also centralize post-release data tracking and map which services people are truly engaging with, identify gaps and continue to move the needle on big picture issues like housing in a more informed way, while also continuing to connect to services like shoes, clothes, food, and transportation.
Invest Hamilton County will be expanding the scope of services we’re providing in our local correctional ecosystem in several ways. Our team’s next six months will be dedicated to making these items a reality. We are actively fundraising and convening around these priorities, and if you’d like to be involved please reach out to us.
Here is our vision… built on three pillars… Training. Connection. Coaching.
Hamilton County Tourism and Invest HC have committed to run the current hospitality and soft-skills training for multiple years, with a goal being to continue it in perpetuity.
Along with this current training the local workforce ecosystem and employer connections have identified construction as a field with high-performing partners and significant potential for economic mobility. Based on labor-force data, employer feedback sessions, engagement with industry partners, and the time availability of participants OSHA 30 has been identified as a training which would significantly impact placements and earnings for participants.
To date all Invest HC trainings have received 5/5 rating from participants and the most consistent feedback has been, “we want more!”
Hard skills do have measured outcomes attached to employee retention but for disadvantaged populations like those with justice-involvement what matters most is helping to overcome fear. The vast majority of these individuals, if connected to the right opportunity, have the potential to excel and build a great life. Their struggles with mental health, anxiety, confidence, and employment history have a more significant effect than any hard skill will ever have on their ability to find the next right step in their path.
Skills-Based Career Exploration
Because many of these individuals have never had a true opportunity for career exploration Invest HC will work with correctional staff to expose them to all the myriad of opportunities available and help them translate their existing skills into fields that fit them well. This will not be exclusive to training program participants or exclusively target positions in Hospitality and/or Construction. Invest HC, through multiple grant awards and internal investments, maintains the SkillFit Hamilton County Career Explorer. More than a job board, SkillFit, helps individuals (through AI technology) explore the skills they possess and see how those translate into broader opportunities in the economy.
Studies show that skills-based career exploration can expand the number of positions available to a candidate by up to 43%.
As a next step and in coordination with coaching, SkillFit also contains a directory of every state-approved training provider that can help candidates gain access to training that helps them progress their career. For most incarcerated individuals, due to technology restrictions, these trainings will not be available until post-release, but as they look at their “dream job” and see the gaps in skills/experience they may possess, they can then target a first and/or next job that also helps to fill in those gaps. Programming will also coordinate with local partners like Ivy Tech of Hamilton County to identify local/regional opportunity pathways and funding.
Currently the TOWER program within the jail hosts one career fair per year and post-pandemic Community Corrections has been unable to pick their direct employer engagement up again. As part of this slate of programming Invest HC staff will assume responsibility for the following programming:
- At least two larger career fair events in the jail and/or community corrections per year for both men and women populations
- At least six individual employer engagement sessions with Community Corrections per year
- Coordinate coaching sessions and mock interviews for program participants on a regular basis coordinated with release dates
- At least two employer engagement events per year in coordination with local chambers and community partners
- Connect participating employers with evidence-based resources and subject matter expertise regarding second-chance systems, reentry hiring, tax incentives and liability protections.
A primary deliverable of this project will be to provide every TOWER, Project Hope, skills-training and eligible Community Corrections participant with one-on-one career coaching and navigation assistance. Individuals with a history of justice-involvement believe their vocational potential is far more limited than the reality. With proper coaching and connection, the field of opportunities available is able to expand exponentially.
Coaches will assist participants with career and resource navigation items such as (but not limited to): financial literacy, digital literacy, resume writing, interview coaching and federal/state/local career and/or education grant navigation. They can also serve as referral sources for resources in areas like housing, transportation, mental health and food insecurity. Some of these coaching sessions will occur in group settings with participants and others will be managed on a more individual basis.
These supports will begin during as early as their stay at the jail and engagements will scale as they get closer to release back into the community or into Community Corrections. The goal is to provide a consistent career-assistance contact they can utilize to maximize their employment outcomes and identify positions that help them navigate a career path and find purpose. The navigators will also help participants connect to state, federal and local resources and social supports.
We will be kicking off this expansion in 2024. Multiple partners and funders are already engaged. If you’d like to be one of them we’d love to have you.
Mike Thibideau serves as the President & CEO of the Hamilton County Economic Development Corporation (dba Invest Hamilton County). In this role Mike manages workforce development, talent attraction and quality of life initiatives throughout Hamilton County.