Editor's Note: For the past two decades, the shortage of skilled workers has steadily increased. The crunch is growing tighter as Baby Boomers retire, and there are not enough workers to replace them. This is the third of a three-part series exploring what Knox County is doing to ensure a pipeline of talent into the skilled trades. Part I published on Nov. 18. Part II published on Nov. 19.
MOUNT VERNON — With low unemployment and high availability of jobs, Knox County is searching for solutions to fill the shortage of skilled workers.
The national survey “2019 Voice of the Blue-Collar Worker” identifies several strategies to fill the void. One strategy is to recruit the next generation.
Check. Knox County is doing that through the new Career Navigator position and the $30,000 vocational scholarship commitment by the Knox County Foundation.
Another strategy identified is to tap into new talent pools.
Check. Knox County is doing that through programs initiated and overseen by the court system and Knox County Job & Family Services. Because of its established efforts to restore and rehabilitate offenders, the State of Ohio has asked Knox County to be part of a pilot program that includes employers in the partnership.
Restored Citizens Program
Restored citizens are offenders who are coming out of incarceration, have been convicted of felonies but were not incarcerated, or have been out for a period of time. The No. 1 barrier for ex-offenders is finding a job.
The Restored Citizens Program seeks to increase their chance of finding employment and reducing re-incarceration because of a lack of work. Knox County is already doing that.
“For the past 1½ to 2 years we've had a job program with the court, working through the Alpha & Omega House and municipal court with those getting out of jail or who are on probation or parole,” said Brandy Booth, lead supervisor for the Restored Citizens Program at Opportunity Knox.
“That's one of the reasons the state became interested in us,” added Diana Williams, JFS administrator at Opportunity Knox.
Booth said 31 people convicted of a lower-level felony completed the local job program in lieu of incarceration.
“At least 15 of them have gained employment,” she said.
The restored citizen pilot program takes local efforts a step further. A state-employed liaison, based at Opportunity Knox, will meet with employers, talking with them about the benefits of hiring restored citizens and finding employers willing to hire them. The liaison will also cover Delaware, Marion, and Morrow counties.
“With the unemployment where it is, it's easier now to engage with employers because employers are needing workers,” said Matthew Kurtz, director of Knox County JFS. “Many (restored citizens) have been in job training and or in college while they were incarcerated. There are a lot of programs going on to make sure these folks are prepared to return to the workforce.
“The more success you can set up for a person coming out of incarceration, the more likely they are to engage and not fall back into bad patterns that got them where they were to begin with.”
The liaison works with the employer to ensure a fair and open employment situation for the restored citizen and will serve as a resource to the employer should issues develop after the hire. Employers also have access to a secure database that includes resumes of incarcerated or recently incarcerated individuals.
“The Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections has been doing this directly with some employers and has a database,” Kurtz said. “What has not been done is connect with the counties directly."
Kurtz acknowledged employers might be reluctant to embrace the program.
“Positive behavior, documentation that they're coming along, and working a plan helps reassure employers that they are not taking a huge risk on the face of it,” he said. “There is also a performance bond to make employers feel more comfortable. You try to answer all of the barriers.”
If the employer accepts a restored citizen, the state covers the cost of annual drug testing and background checks, Booth said.
“Employers are constantly asking for employees,” Williams said. “You would think that with the need for workers, employers would be more than just a little willing to think outside the box.
“Where we are right now, this would be a gift. Not just to the restored citizen, but also the employers in Knox County.”
Statewide, the ODRC releases 22,000 offenders ever year. There are no numbers specific to Knox County.
Booth said the Restored Citizens Program is a “win-win all the way around.”
“It helps folks who need jobs get employment, which changes life for their families,” she said. “It creates a productive member of society and a taxpayer who doesn't have time to re-offend. And it's a win for the employer who needs workers.”