CORONAVIRUS (COVID-19) RESOURCE CENTER Read More
Add To Favorites

Connecticut manufacturers, desperate for workers, are hiring ex-inmates

Hartford Courant - 12.10.2021

As manufacturers and other employers scour Connecticut for workers, they’re turning to an unlikely corner of the labor force: ex-inmates who’ve gone through prison job-training programs run by community colleges.

Whitcraft, an aerospace manufacturer in Eastford and other sites, has hired more than two dozen ex-inmates from state prisons in the last few years. Chief Operating Officer Jacqueline Gallo said she’s “kind of passionate about getting people another opportunity.”

Gallo said she had the idea three years ago when Whitcraft, which also operates in Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts and Ohio, sought hires as it ramped up production. Its Newburyport, Massachusetts, operation has hired trained ex-inmates, prompting Gallo to work with the Connecticut Department of Correction and halfway houses in the state.

Angel Torres, who had been convicted of robbery and incarcerated at Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center and later Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution, was trained at Whitcraft on CNC, or computer-run machining known as computer numerical control.

Torres, 45, a machinist, had previous manufacturing skills working at a Waterbury manufacturer of copper wiring.

“I’m making more money than before,” he said. “It’s nice. I love it. I have a career.”

Gallo said she hired Torres while he was incarcerated. He was among two dozen workers who were part of a Whitcraft-prison partnership. “He’s one of those guys who stuck with us,” she said.

Hiring inmates has worked out well, she said. When workers dropped out, it was due to a lack of transportation from home once they were released from prison, she said.

Before the pandemic Gallo hired 25 to 30 inmates; six are still working at Whitcraft. Using halfway houses, she said she’s hired about eight workers and is “getting candidates every day.”

The state Department of Correction’s Second Chance Pell Program partners community colleges with several state prisons to offer certificates in human services, business management, advanced manufacturing, marketing and general studies, said Melissa Santiago, a counselor supervisor at the agency.

Courses are taught in prison, and colleges check to make sure inmate-students have a high school degree or GED and are not in default on student loans, she said.

In the current semester, 218 are enrolled, down from 310 in March 2020 before the program was suspended because of COVID-19, a small share of the 9,300 inmates behind bars in Connecticut, Santiago said. Inmates must be within five years of the end of their sentence to “be ready for the next step,” she said. No other restrictions are imposed by the Department of Correction.

“From the DOC perspective we’re not going to tell someone they can’t go to college because of the crime committed,” Santiago said.

In addition to helping manufacturers and employers find workers, prison education and a job on the outside are among the “best tools against recidivism,” said Teresa Foley, academic affairs dean at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield.

Connecticut’s suppliers for the state’s defense contractors — jet engine maker Pratt & Whitney, helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky Aircraft and submarine maker Electric Boat — are constantly searching for workers to fill thousands of jobs.

Despite a rebound from a steep drop at the start of the pandemic, manufacturing jobs are still down more than 8,000, or 5%, from February 2020, the last month before COVID-19 swept Connecticut. The most recent data show 6,238 manufacturing job postings, according to the state Department of Labor, citing Help Wanted On Line. It’s up from 3,616 a year ago, suggesting that manufacturers are trying to hire.

Complicating efforts are Baby Boomer retirements that cancel out new hires. “We battle attrition,” Gallo said.

To fill jobs, manufacturers train applicants who are over the age of 50, try to persuade high school students to sign up for factory work and even reach out to middle- and high school girls to consider manufacturing.

Connecticut has established advanced manufacturing education programs and promoted manufacturing at high schools and community colleges. Before the pandemic, trade shows such as an annual aerospace gathering in Hartford, were organized.

And schools and manufacturers have established internships to attract next-generation workers.

“Manufacturers are screaming for people,” said Kelli Vallieres, a manufacturing executive who was appointed by Gov. Ned Lamont to head the state Office of Workforce Strategy. “I think manufacturers are open to any way we can train people.”

The Office of Workforce Strategy is looking to work with the Department of Correction to develop more certificate programs in prisons focused on in-demand careers in manufacturing and other industries and routes to information technology and the construction trades.

For ex-inmates who can’t find work, Goodwin University in East Hartford offers an 18-credit certificate program on how to start and run a business. Courses are available in personal finance, management, marketing, accounting, business law, small business and entrepreneurship, said Matt Connell, assistant professor and program director in business administration.

“It’s not easy to find employment for the incarcerated,” he said. “They are far and few between.”

Several who have successfully completed the program have established small businesses such as a barber shop, an auto repair business and tax preparation service.

Torres, who initially was accompanied by a prison guard when he first worked at Whitcraft, said co-workers were at first uncomfortable.

“When you have a corrections officer at the facility it kind of puts people on edge,” he said.

Gallo said she draws the line at violent crimes when hiring, though she said she gave a job to a worker who was convicted for manslaughter after striking someone in a car while intoxicated.

“They tend to be more loyal for being given the opportunity,” Gallo said.

Stephen Singer can be reached at ssinger@courant.com.

©2021 Hartford Courant. Visit courant.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.