Roy Torres had plenty of time to think about his future while serving 10 years in prison for burglary. “When I was doing my time, I started reading about everything going green.”
Shortly after being released from custody last year, Torres found a flyer advertising a “green career” program sponsored by The Osborne Association in the South Bronx. “I made the call, took the placement test, and did well,” said Torres, who worked as an electrician before he admits falling in “with the wrong crowd.”
Funded by $2 million in federal stimulus money distributed by the state of New York, the Green Career Center provides two weeks of computer and career development skills, followed by four weeks of skills training. Since it opened in Spring 2010, 105 people have participated in training programs and 67 have graduated, reports director John Valverde. According to a recent study, there are 13,500 parolees living in the five boroughs of New York City and 68 percent of them do not have jobs.
“Our program gives business owners a chance to hire someone and decide if you want to keep them on a full-time basis,” said Valverde. “We feel strongly that our graduates can compete with anyone that’s out there looking for a job.”
Valverde said “the dignity of work, building and creating things that helps people find a new purpose for their lives.” He explained that while many participants learn a trade in prison, but lack the computer and social skills needed to land a good-paying job.
Dozens of small businesses have stepped up to hire graduates of Osborne’s six-week Green Career program. About 20 percent of the graduates qualify for wage subsidies which reimburses up to $9 an hour for three months. (Many states offer wage subsidy programs to encourage companies to hire disadvantaged workers, so check with your state’s labor or employment development department).
“I have had great success with Osborne graduates and I encourage other employers to give them a try,” said Frank Cruz, president of Direct Environmental Corp., based in the Bronx. The company sells the Big Belly solar-powered trash compactor, designed for residential and commercial buildings. “Most of the people who have served time are good people who don’t want to ever seen the inside of jail cell again, but they can’t find a job.”
Five days a week, Green Center graduate Roy Torres gets up at 4 a.m. to make a 90-minute commute via subway from Brooklyn to the Bronx to work at DEC Corp. (Osborne provides lunch and a small stipend upon graduation, as well as Metro cards).
“Osborne is a great place to get a new start because they open so many doors for you,” said Torres. He learned weatherization techniques at Osborne, but was happy to land a job installing and servicing the solar powered trash compactors. “The people at Big Belly know about my past. They are courteous and a great bunch of people. It’s the first time in 10 years that I’ve really felt great,” said Torres. “I’m optimistic and love what I’m doing. I’m making a living wage and like the idea of saving the planet and being connected with something green, besides the money.”
Torres’ boss, Frank Cruz, said he’s hired about 50 Osborne graduates since 1997. (He was hiring people before the Green Career Center opened). Cruz admits he was nervous about hiring ex-cons, but was impressed with Osborne’s training and screening services.
“There was an occasional disappointment, but nothing terrible, just a bad attitude. It’s tough for people who have been incarcerated a long time to open their hearts and trust people enough to let them help you,” Cruz said.
Based on his positive experience, Cruz urges other big and small business owners to consider hiring former convicts.
Peter Oppermann, founder and CEO of Shoji Living, which makes custom-fitted Japanese sliding doors out of sustainable materials, is so enthusiastic about the Green Career Center he plans to teach some classes starting in October. He will also be hiring some graduates to build the custom-designed wooden screens.
“I’m planning to restructure my business to hire a group of Osborne graduates to assemble Shoji screens,” said Oppermann. “I believe that in order to build your own success, you have to help other people build their success.”
Jane Applegate is a speaker and author of 201 Great Ideas for Your Small Business, published by John Wiley & Sons. The Applegate Group Inc. provides strategic marketing and video production services for big and small companies. For information visit: www.theapplegategroup.com.