California Workforce Association’s Bob Lanter discusses what he sees as the win-win of the Prison to Employment Initiative

A barber in his shop
Entrepreneurship training--for people who want to own their own business--is also available through the Prison to Employment Initiative.

by Thea Marie Rood

To understand the scope of workforce programs in general, it’s important to see the benefits to job seekers, but also to employers and the community at large. This is especially true of the Prison to Employment initiative. To get an expert perspective, N&R Publications sat down with Bob Lanter, executive director of the nonprofit California Workforce Association, which supports workforce development boards throughout the state.

How does this program help people get a job that might be difficult to find on their own?

One of the cool features of the Prison to Employment initiative is the workforce development boards are able to not only provide services to formerly incarcerated people but to people while they are still incarcerated. Workforce development can help identify the job experience, knowledge and abilities they have and translate those to civilian life when they are released.

(Otherwise) they don’t have any idea where to start. And waiting for them to come out and then throwing all that at them is just overwhelming.

This offers a caring strategy—and I really want to stress that, a caring strategy. They go to prison to rehabilitate themselves—that’s the theory anyway—so they need a chance to rehabilitate.

How does this program benefit employers, especially with the labor shortage affecting California right now?

Even before the pandemic, it was a tight labor market. Since the pandemic, people are making new choices and it’s not just about pay—it’s about benefits, a work/life balance, so it’s an even smaller labor pool.

Employers have a labor source of people coming out of the prison system who are talented and trained in a lot of different industries, and they’ll have low turnover and dedicated employees. One thing we know about this population is if they are treated right, they are loyal and will stay with you.

People hear ‘Prison to Employment’ and they think of hardened criminals who can’t be rehabilitated. But that is not the case in the vast majority of this population… They are a talented, valuable population and shouldn’t be overlooked by our state’s employers.

Bob Lanter, executive director of the California Workforce Association

Often we hear of large companies—particularly commercial construction or transportation—that are willing to overlook job seekers’ backgrounds, but what about small businesses?

Small business has been slower (to participate) than large corporations that have staffing to offer extra support—the HR person in a small business is also the owner. They do a lot. But that is where the workforce system can lend support to not only the person getting the job but also to the employer. On-the-Job Training pays the salary for the first 12 weeks, which eases the burden on payroll but also helps with supervision. (Workforce staff) check in on a regular basis with the employee and the employer, make sure training is going well, etc.

What about people who come out of the justice system and want to start their own business?

Entrepreneurship training is going on up and down the workforce system, because many people are seeing the need for having their own small business. The training includes writing a business plan, promoting your business online, social media, taxes. And now workforce development is taking this program behind prison walls, so people are dreaming in prison in ways they have never been able to before. ‘What if I could really do this?’

And like the On-the-Job Training program, a small business—let’s say a barber—that wants some help but can’t afford a full-time employee, they can have someone interested in opening a barber shop attach themselves and learn the business, all the entrepreneurial skills. It’s a win-win all around.

How is it better for the community to help people get a second chance?

The community benefits because you have productive people paying taxes and not participating in crime.

People hear ‘Prison to Employment’ and they think of hardened criminals who can’t be rehabilitated. But that is not the case in the vast majority of this population, especially in California, where we have so many people wrongfully incarcerated, incarcerated for minor offenses or for offenses we wouldn’t even prosecute now, like a lot of the drug charges. They are a talented, valuable population and shouldn’t be overlooked by our state’s employers.

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About North Bay Employment Connection 28 Articles
North Bay Employment Connection is a collaborative of the Solano & Sonoma County Workforce Development Boards, and newly formed joint powers authority Workforce Alliance of the North Bay (Napa-Lake, Marin & Mendocino counties). As a collaborative, NBEC and its core partners are dedicated to supporting businesses in key North Bay industry sectors, and making smart investments for the region’s workforce systems. Over $12 million has been secured in competitive state and federal grants to enhance NBEC’s capacity to serve the employer and job-seeker communities.