Opinion: Apprenticeships should be part of programming for juvenile offenders
By Deborah Williamson | March 24, 2022
A stolen bike. A schoolyard tussle complete with shiners. A neighbor’s garage door graffitied. These seemingly minor incidents can start a young person down the road to delinquency. And once down that road, some young people will find themselves in the juvenile justice system.
I worked in that system for many years, and, with my colleagues, strove to help young offenders break out of delinquency by getting them to take responsibility for their actions and steering them toward more productive choices.
A key tool for doing so was the court diversion program. My staff and I built diversion agreements for low level offenders that:
- were offense specific.
- provided opportunities to educate those on our caseload about the law.
- addressed the needs of victims.
- acquainted our clients with a broad range of services available in their local communities.
- reduced recidivism.
One of the strongest elements of our diversion agreements was a structured community service program. The most successful programs treated juvenile referrals as regular candidates for employment, complete with formal job interviews and periodic performance assessments.
These work arrangements often led to strong connections between employers and our juvenile clients, with many employers writing letters of recommendation, serving as job references and offering certificates of completion.
Our program had many positive outcomes because of these connections, including:
- a high number of completed diversion agreements.
- low recidivism.
- significantly reduced referral rates to formal court.
But I believe our outcomes could have been even better if we’d known about registered apprenticeship.
How registered apprenticeship works
Registered apprenticeship combines classroom instruction with on-the-job training under the guidance of an experienced mentor. A quality registered apprenticeship program:
- creates rewarding career pathways for youth and young adults.
- offers paid employment.
- helps employers build a talent pipeline and eliminate skill shortages.
- helps local businesses, educational institutions and other stakeholders establish a sustainable youth apprenticeship framework.
I’ve been working with the Department of Labor’s Youth Apprenticeship Initiative since I left the court system 10 years ago. And I believe it’s a great option for young people in general, but especially for those who’ve run afoul of the law. Here are a few reasons why:
Lower risks, higher resiliency, more real world learning
Registered apprenticeship programs provide young people with developmentally appropriate and challenging opportunities to contribute at work, under the guidance of an experienced mentor. Instead of being labeled as delinquent, they are seen as – and perhaps more importantly, believe they are – engaged and contributing members of society.
Quality registered apprenticeship programs provide competency-based frameworks that focus on skill development rather than memorization. Employers and educators collaborate to create frameworks that link job skills and classroom instruction. What’s taught in the classroom is directly related to what’s needed on the job – so no more chorus of young voices claiming classroom learning is not relevant to life in the real world.
Structured work reduces the opportunity to engage in delinquent behavior. Apprenticeship frameworks set out a schedule of activities that structure an apprentice’s work day. Those who adhere to this structured employment and school schedule spend more of their day in positive social engagement and less, or none, with delinquent peer groups.
In registered apprenticeship, a mentor and an apprentice sign a contract. According to author and workforce expert Nicholas Wyman, “Mentors look for and are skilled at spotting the signs of doubt, fear, and frustration that apprentices … might have over the course of the placement. This way, they can intervene in a productive and helpful way before problems grow, conflicts occur, and things begin to feel hopeless.” If an apprentice is struggling at a placement, the apprentice goes to a mentor for additional training or other services, including substance abuse counseling, GED services or training in financial literacy.
Some employers are willing to hire youthful offenders
In 2020, there were 26,000 apprenticeship programs across the nation, enrolling more than 220,000 people. Additionally, 82,000 individuals graduated from apprenticeship programs with nationally recognized credentials from the U.S. Department of Labor. Apprenticeships are available in more than 1,000 occupations. And each state has a registered apprenticeship office to help you register a program, connect with program sponsors and enroll apprentices.
In my own experience as a juvenile justice practitioner, I’ve seen that employers are willing to hire young people who’ve run afoul of the law. And as someone who’s spent hours crafting high quality programs for young offenders, I know that registered apprenticeship has all the factors that go into a successful program: structure, employer and community engagement, meaningful learning opportunities and tangible reward.
Bringing apprenticeship into the juvenile justice system will be a great way to help young offenders choose a better path, to the benefit of both themselves and their communities.
Deborah Williamson is vice president of special projects and operations at the Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation America. Previously, she was labor relations director at the New Mexico Department of Workforce Solutions and general manager of juvenile services at the Kentucky Court of Justice.
‘How To Give A Chance To This Under-Represented Group Of Your Would-Be Workers’ – Forbes
Across the country, job vacancies are outnumbering available workers by almost five million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).
Where and how will we find those workers? The so-called Great Resignation has seen swathes of people switch jobs leading to solid wage growth, and it’s also created many entry-level positions across a range of sectors.
With demand for labor outstripping the supply industry, employers need to try new strategies for their talent pipeline by diversifying their workforce. It’s the most effective way to resolve the current challenges.
Would-be workers at the ready
A cohort of would-be workers hiding in plain sight deserves to be considered for these roles despite being historically under-employed. They need a second chance.
You can probably guess who I’m talking about. Formerly incarcerated people. You might have heard a statistic that one in three US adults has a criminal record. Still, The Poynter Institute’s Politifact says to treat that with a grain of salt because there’s no federal data on how many people with a criminal conviction live in the US. However, they won’t all have spent time in prison bars.
And just to challenge your thinking that all incarcerated people have been convicted of a crime, consider this. About 49,000 youth in confinement in the US are there for a serious offense, i.e., a crime, says the Prison Policy Initiative. Others may have done time without a conviction simply because they couldn’t afford bail while investigating their charges. The initiative details that minorities are most likely to fall through such cracks.
Some 45% of those who’ve been incarcerated report zero earnings in that first year after release, says the Brookings Institution. According to the Harvard Business Review, their unemployment rate is 27%. That’s about 1.35 million formerly incarcerated people without employment, though many could work. The Center for Economic and Policy Research looks at the statistics differently. It says that per year, almost two million formerly incarcerated people are out of work, and, as a result, our nation loses $80 billion in gross domestic product. And because of unemployment, many turn to criminal activities to meet the basic human needs of shelter, food, and clothing, thereby furthering the cycle of recidivism unnecessarily.
To understand the impact a criminal history can have, search policies by keywords, jurisdiction, and consequence on the National Inventory of Collateral Consequences of Criminal Conviction. The site defines ‘collateral consequences’ as the “legal and regulatory restrictions that limit or prohibit people convicted of crimes from accessing employment, business and occupational licensing, housing, voting, education, and other rights, benefits, and opportunities .”It may open your eyes to a vast range of barriers former prisoners experience (the very obstacles that land many behind bars in the first place- socio-economic gaps and little to no opportunity).
The barriers to employment start early in the process. The HBRsays if you have a criminal record, that halves the chance of getting a call back after applying for a job (compared to those with a clean record). But asking candidates about their criminal record could be illegal, depending on the state where you’re based. Check to see if yours has adopted the Fair Chance Act. It has been in force in California since January 2018, prohibiting employers with five or more employees to ask a candidate about their criminal record before making a job offer. In 15 states and 22 cities, the Federal Government has adopted this law, also known as Ban the Box.
Last November, the Council of State Governments Justice Center set up the Fair Chance Licensing Project. This follows the reforms across the states that reduce barriers to employment for people with criminal and juvenile records. Knowing what’s happening in your state is good, so your recruitment policies and practices are above board.
Skills to tap into
There are thousands of formerly incarcerated Americans who want to and can work. This is a population that needs a second chance to gain stability and avoid reoffending to make a living. There are conscious and unconscious biases built into systems and processes and many misconceptions. Often labels affixed by the larger society lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy for those previously incarcerated or those who have had minor run-ins with the justice system. Usually, fear stops employers from looking beyond labels to see what skillsets and personal attributes formerly incarcerated people could bring to the workplace.
Where apprenticeships could fit in
Employers should think about (such people) justice-involved or formerly justice-involved as would-be apprentices. The registered apprenticeship model has had a solid history of helping people successfully transition from the prison system into ongoing employment. Such programs mix pre-apprenticeship formal classroom instructions with access to on-the-job training in commercial workplaces. When combined with high-quality mentoring, these models have stood the test of time and consistently delivered improved employment outcomes for participants across sectors.
Such approaches are successfully used throughout the European Union and the United Kingdom. Last month, the UK government announced a law change to allow prisoners at low-risk jails to access pre-apprenticeship training while incarcerated. They can also apply for apprenticeship jobs in different sectors, which boosts their employment prospects post-release.
If we can’t improve employment outcomes for formerly incarcerated people – and all disadvantaged and under-represented groups – during a red-hot labor market, then when can we expect to?