Wisconsin is host to the nation’s highest Black incarceration rate. It also has one the highest recidivism rates. Many experts agree the lack of employment opportunities is a thread between those two statistics.
Several new local pilot projects hope to prove they not only have the formula for cutting the thread, but filling future regional labor needs. The U.S. Department of Labor, Employment and Training Administration funded ‘WIRED’ program provided opportunities to local community groups to explore employment and educational initiatives that would impact on the growth of 21st century economic needs. Among the pilot projects funded were several that dealt specifically with integrating former inmates into the jobs market. The projects had the twin goals of lowering the recidivism rate while providing education and career options for former inmates who might otherwise fall prey again to criminal activities.
The projects were funded by a unique federal pilot project. The $5 million WIRED (Workforce Innovation and Regional Economic Development) grant was awarded to the collaborative workforce alliance known as Milwaukee 7 and focused on innovative training and educational projects that could supplement ever changing employment needs of the region.
The Milwaukee 7 was created five years ago to promote economic development and employment throughout Southeastern Wisconsin. For the WIRED project, the Milwaukee 7 collaborated with area workforce investments boards, schools and the Greater Milwaukee Committee.
A screening committee representing the Milwaukee 7 service area sorted through hundreds of applications before selecting nearly 50 distinctive proposals, each of which advanced the WIRED goal of offering outcomes that can be adopted and duplicated by other partnerships. Some of the grants went to educational institutions, whiles others were earmarked for research and job readiness projects. In each case, the chosen projects met criteria that supported future educational, economic development and employment possibilities for the seven county region. Several of projects dealt directly or indirectly with populations that are generally left out of the employment pool.
Milwaukee’s Running Rebels received a grant that enabled the anti-violence group to mentor and train clients who are generally considered unemployable because of past brushes with the criminal justice system.
A Wisconsin Community Services’ project replicated a Workforce Development Collaborative that educated and trained urban ex-offenders for ‘demand driven employers needs in the Milwaukee, Waukesha and Racine counties.’ As explained in its application, WCS’ program sought to “significantly improve prison re-entry services in a coordinated fashion and reduce recidivism, which causes an economic drain on Southern Wisconsin, while simultaneously influence the communities where the participants reside.”
Local business consultant Wallace White served as a member of the WIRED selection panel. During the course of the evaluation period, he entertained dozens of applicants providing some of the most innovative and far reaching projects. He said his primary emphasis was to maintain an eye toward future regional workforce and educational needs in the areas of technology and economic development. Another focus was on establishing linkages for regional cooperation and occupational diversity.
“The process was very unique and far reaching,” he explained. “The funding enabled (entities) to think out of the box, while anticipating the future needs for a well trained workforce.”
Wallace said the educational initiatives were equally significant, allowing high school and college students to preview occupational pathways. Funded educational initiatives included curriculum development and fresh water technologies. One project focused on professional development of staff to more ‘effectively deliver career education.’
While many of the projects focused on future career paths like green technology, eco-science and renewable energy, traditional vocations were not ignored. Uniquely, several grants were awarded to organizations promoting traditional skills sets as bridges for individuals with criminal records.
The Running Rebels pilot project was one of several that dealt specifically with reintegration, providing hope and opportunities for individuals with troubled pasts. Rebel’s president Victor Barnett said his ‘project based training program’ provided hands on skills to 28 participants who otherwise would probably be swallowed up in a culture of poverty and criminality. Barnett said his project opened the door for a larger initiative he’s calling ‘Pipeline to Promise.’
The participants had the opportunity to work on a carpentry project (remodeling a banquet hall), and were encouraged to enhance their educations and engage in civic projects as well. They were paid while in the program.
“We provided soft skills over the course of the project, coupled with educational pathways that will open the doors for individuals,” Barnett explained.
“There are a lot of young brothers out here who want to leave the streets, to assume traditional roles as fathers and breadwinners. They just need an opportunity and the skills to make the transition.” Barnett said it was a telling sign that many of the participants took up carpentry and home improvement as their pathway to the trades, since “some of them used to vandalize these houses: now they are fixing them up, and seeing the value of rebuilding our community.”
Barnett said he was filled with pride and a sense of accomplishment as many of the participants used the program as a springboard for enrollment in MATC. Several set their sights on enrolling in BIG STEP, a trades training program that serves as a gateway to internships.
“The project truly turned out to be a ‘Pipeline to Promise.’” Barnett exclaimed proudly. “We were working with former gang members, drug dealers who have turned their lives around and are on the verge of becoming contributing members of society, good citizens, husbands and fathers.
“All they needed with a pipeline and because of this program (WIRED), we were able to provide it.”
The one deficit of the program is that it a short-term pilot.
“We learned a lot, and saw an avenue through which we can help change our community. Now, our focus turns to finding permanent funding to continue this project.
“We’re grateful for the opportunity to have participated in WIRED. I wish they would have used stimulus money to continue the program, but we’ll hopefully find a source of funding to keep this going. That’s what the program goal envisioned.”
With the nation in a recession and philanthropic organizations cutting back, White shared Barnett’s regret that the WIRED project was not a permanent catalyst for jobs creation and technological exploration.
The project holds significant promise, he said, both as a precursor for employment possibilities and as a catalyst for regional cooperation. Hopefully, local political observers will lobby for a reauthorization of the project.