A $3 million federal grant received last summer by the city of Springfield is expanding a Missouri Job Center program that seeks to help people in prison prepare to reenter the workforce.
The three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Labor Employment and Training Administration is going toward the city’s About Persons with Past Legal Issues in Employment program. The APPLIE program includes training for inmates across the region on online job applications, resume development and mock interviews.
The goal over the next three years is to work with 400 participants in the program prior to their release from prison, said Jennifer Biri, Missouri Job Center business services representative. It marks an increase in the last couple of years in a program that has produced 200 graduates, she said, noting a success rate of about 76% of those becoming employed.
“Those 400 people will be returning to our communities that will need employment opportunities,” she said, noting over 30 are currently enrolled in the program. This year, seven have graduated and five are employed.
“We work with them on interviewing, how to talk with an employer about their legal history and how to discuss that in an interview,” Biri said.
Roughly $624,000 of the grant is dedicated to training for program participants who might be interested in learning new skills. The training can even be utilized while they are still in prison, such as being certified in workplace safety or as a flagger for traffic control, Biri said.
“We can then help with other training once they get out, such as (commercial driver’s license) training,” she said, noting the grant also provides a case manager for all participants. “It just will be on a case-by-case basis depending on what they are interested in.”
Since Missouri Job Center created APPLIE in 2006, classes have been held in the Missouri Job Center offices in Springfield and Branson, the Missouri Probation and Parole Office, the U.S. Medical Center for Federal Prisoners in Springfield and the Ozark Correctional Center in Fordland.
“With this grant, we were able to expand our efforts,” Biri said. “We had already been working in the prisons and working with those justice-involved individuals.”
Biri said the program is now also offered at Algoa Correctional Center in Jefferson City, Chillicothe Correctional Institution, South Central Correctional Center in Licking and Tipton Correctional Center.
Requirements are participants must be no more than 180 days away from being released from prison and will be living in the Missouri Job Center’s service region, which covers Greene, Christian, Dallas, Polk, Stone, Taney and Webster counties.
Two graduates were recently hired by Creative Modular Construction LLC, said Sean Stegeman, human resources and workforce development manager. The company, which Stegeman said changed names in January from Architectural Design Concepts LLC to better reflect its work, is on the lookout for more APPLIE participants.
“Anybody that wants to be developed, we want them,” he said. “We want to provide a place where they can come and thrive.”
CMC is providing on-the-job training for the two program hires, with the Missouri Job Center reimbursing half of the new employees’ wages via the grant for up to 1,040 hours, or six months.
“We’re able to be more intentional about on-the-job training and cross-training,” Stegeman said. “In order to sustain our growth, we have to be intentional about training people and employee retention.”
Stegeman said the company is in hiring mode as it seeks to triple its current 52-employee count to take on an uptick in work from Fayetteville, Arkansas-based drive-thru coffee chain 7 Brew Coffee. CMC constructs the buildings for 7 Brew in its fabrication and assembly facilities, loads the structures on a truck and installs them on site. The company has recently assembled buildings for two Springfield stores, as well as stores in Texas. It also has partnerships with franchisees in Colorado, New York and South Carolina.
“We’ve hired roughly 17 people in the last two months,” he said.
CMC is an employer willing to look beyond mistakes and focus on what the prospective employee wants to do moving forward, Stegeman said. He speaks from personal experience, as the company hired him a couple years ago after he was released from prison. The 37-year-old said he was in and out of jail through much of his 20s and early 30s with past felony convictions for assault and stalking.
While familiar with the APPLIE program, Stegeman connected with CMC via Freeway Ministries.
“When you have a person that has a past and is stuck in a cycle, when they get out there’s a huge pressure on them to find a job and reveal to an employer about their past and why they haven’t been working,” he said.
Stegeman said the APPLIE program is a great resource for those soon to exit prison to learn soft skills and be better prepared for finding and keeping a job.
Missouri Job Center is hosting a May 10 informational meeting on the program at its 2900 E. Sunshine St. location to promote the federal grant and financial assistance employers can receive for job training.
“We want employers to jump on board with this grant,” Biri said. “Employers are short staffed. This is a good, untapped market maybe they haven’t thought of.”
The demand for workers continues amid statewide low unemployment, which was 3.7% in March, according to the Missouri Economic Research and Information Center.
Apart from helping remove barriers for the inmates to become productive citizens again, Missouri Job Center officials say APPLIE seeks to reduce the offender recidivism rate.
According to the Missouri Department of Corrections, 69% of those formerly incarcerated who don’t have a full-time job return to prison within two years. But that number drops to only about 23% for those who do find full-time employment within that same period. The state’s prison population is roughly 26,000, according to the DOC.
“If they have a job and are working and stable with income coming in, sometimes we hear they want two jobs to keep themselves busy,” Biri said.
Biri said the May 10 session also will include information on tax incentives employers can seek for hiring someone who is a former inmate, such as work opportunity tax credits.
“The big thing is to focus on those job skills and not necessarily with the legal issues,” she said. “I encourage any employer to sit down and talk with them.”
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in May the all-items inflation index surged 8.6% over the past year, the highest increase since 1981.