Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Why should your business make the LEAP?

Nancy Dischinat, Executive Director, Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board, Inc.

Why your business should make the LEAP!
Linking to Employment Activities Pre-release (LEAP) Project

It costs taxpayers an average of $42,339 a year to house a prisoner in Pennsylvania. What can employers and businesses do to lessen this burden on taxpayers?  HIRE Ex-Offenders! Some employers may be apprehensive about hiring people with criminal backgrounds but there is a program that is inspiring and equipping offenders with job readiness and employability skills which make them better prepared to enter or rejoin the workforce.

The Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board and Northampton County Executive John Brown applied for and received a $500,000 U.S. Department of Labor grant to partner with Northampton County Department of Corrections to provide transitioning offenders from the County Jail with the critical job readiness and employability skills needed to get and keep a job and to lower recidivism rates, resulting in safer communities, reduced costs to taxpayers, and better prepared employees.
There are two components to the LEAP Project – a pre-release program and a post-release program.  The pre-release program is built around the creation of a mini-CareerLink Center right inside the jail called the LEAP Center.  The Northampton County Jail provided three rooms in the facility for the LEAP Center – a classroom that can accommodate 12 students, a computer lab, and an office area.  The post-release program helps returning citizens seamlessly transition to PA CareerLink® Lehigh Valley where they can connect to all the programs, training and supports offered. 

The Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board has four people at the Northampton County Jail to staff the LEAP Project – a project manager, two instructors and a re-entry navigator who splits her time between the Jail and CareerLink.  LEAP staff actively screen and recruit potential LEAP participants as soon as they enter the Jail.  Participation in the LEAP Project is strictly voluntary and no one is sentenced to attend the program.  In addition, to participate in LEAP offenders must meet the eligibility requirements of the program.  Basic eligibility requirements include:   offenders must be sentenced, have a minimum of 10 weeks until release and a maximum of 25 weeks, must have a high school diploma or GED, and must be misconduct-free for at least 30 days. 

Once an offender is accepted into the program, he or she is assessed to determine baseline measures of his or her job readiness and risk of re-offending.  Participants then receive individualized case management and an Individualized Development Plan is developed to map out a career pathway and action plan to help ensure job placement and successful re-entry into the workforce and community.
A keystone of the LEAP pre-release program is the core curriculum used with participants in 28 two-hour classes where they learn practical job-finding skills, practice positive and professional behaviors, and explore their own strengths and values.  In addition to the classes, LEAP participants go to the computer lab to learn keyboarding and basic computer skills, register on JobGateway® (the state’s on-line job matching system), and research and apply for jobs.  A critically important component of LEAP participants’ time in the computer lab is the one-on-one mentoring they receive from Society of Human Resource Management/Lehigh Valley Chapter (SHRM), an important partner in the LEAP Project.  SHRM professionals provide LEAP participants with assistance exploring careers, preparing their resume and cover letters, and conducting mock job interviews.
Once a LEAP participant completes the pre-release component of the program and is released from jail, the LEAP re-entry navigator sets-up an initial appointment and meets the participant at CareerLink.  These participants will have access to all the services offered including case management, job coaching, workshops, career services, job fairs, occupational training opportunities and support services.            

Since the first LEAP participants began classes in January 2016, 121 offenders were enrolled in the LEAP program and to date, 63 have been released from jail.  Of these 63, 43 are already working and two have enrolled in vocational training. 

What the LEAP participants did not expect when enrolling in the LEAP program was the emotional and physical benefits.  They are breaking down barriers not only for workforce issues but emotional barriers that have caused them to be incarcerated in the first place.

One LEAP participant stated, “This is much more than job readiness, this has taught me about who I am and what I have been doing wrong.”  He went on to say with much emotion and pride “I have nothing but positive things to say about this program, it helped me get support and resources I never had before.” This particular LEAP participant has two young children and a wife living with family since his most recent incarceration left his family homeless.  Now he hopes to get a job as a forklift operator when he gets released from jail and then work towards becoming a welder. He knows now that he needs a job right away to start paying fines and take care of his family.  These are all realizations that he discovered while in the LEAP program. He now has a plan he will aspire to meet, plans he would not have without this program.

What do LEAP participants want employers like you to know next time they apply for a job at your company? “We are not bad people and we need a chance.” Hiring a LEAP participant may make your business eligible for a Work Opportunity Tax Credit.  And for those businesses that are afraid of liability issues from hiring a job applicant with a “risk” factor, the PA Department of Labor and Industry has a no-cost federal bonding program that protects employers from any loss of money or property due to employee dishonesty. 

For more information about the LEAP Project, contact Bill Bartle at the Lehigh Valley Workforce Development Board at 610-841-8323.

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