Josh Haxton was having a hard time finding a job after he got out of prison for drug-related offenses. Austin Electric gave him a chance as an electrician and Haxton said it has changed his life. Tom Tingle/azcentral.com
Troy Barbush says teaching elementary school children and adults with felony convictions is the same.
Barbush, a former teacher in the Deer Valley Unified School District, now runs a training program that teaches adults recently released from state prison how to wire a house for electric.
He works at Avondale-based residential electrical installation company Austin Electric, which partners with the Homebuilders Association of Central Arizona and Arizona Department of Corrections to recruit inmates nearing their release date and offer them jobs once they’re out.
Incarceration and felony convictions can be a huge obstacle to finding employment. Between 14 million and 15.8 million working-age people in the U.S. had felony convictions in 2014, according to an estimate by the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
Just more than a third of non-working men between the ages of 25 and 54 had criminal records, according to a New York Times/CBS News/Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2015.
In Arizona, municipalities such as Phoenix, Glendale and Tucson, as well as Pima County, have eliminated the box on job applications that asks if a person has been convicted of a crime, in line with a nationwide “Ban the Box” campaign.
Austin Electric has hired about 70 formerly incarcerated men and women to undergo its training program since starting the partnership in early 2016. Of those, 52 are still with the company, Barbush said. The company also has trained and employed nine refugees through a similar partnership with the local homebuilders association and the International Rescue Committee, a refugee settlement group in Phoenix.
For Barbush, standing in front of wiggly third-graders in a classroom and teaching adults with felonies under the wooden frame of newly constructed homes boils down to the same skill: communication.
“Basically, the ways I communicate with my students that allows them to learn is the same way that I communicate with my guys trying to get them to learn how to become a better electrician,” Barbush said. “You’re just trying to set them up for success. It’s not that much different.”
He’s also trying to shape them to be good, happy people, and put them on a path to retake their future regardless of past mistakes.
Josh Haxton’s mistake happened around the time he was laid off from his job during the recession, when he got into a “bad crowd” and was incarcerated on drug charges.
Now, six years later, the 28-year-old supervises about 30 employees at Austin Electric.
“This job has changed my life,” Haxton said, confident. “There’s no looking back for me, I will never look back or go back in that direction that I came from.”
A need and an opportunity
Austin Electric set up the training program to increase its workforce and to keep up with the pace of homes going up Valley-wide, Barbush said.
The company’s primary clients are homebuilders.
When the recession hit the housing market, construction plummeted and companies such as Austin Electric lost many employees because there was no work.
Now the market is recovering and rooftops are going back up, but Connie Wilhelm, president of the local homebuilders association, said a shortage of labor in the construction industry still delays new residential developments.
“We probably could’ve built a couple thousand more (homes) last year had we had the workforce,” Wilhelm said.
Many workers have aged out of the field, said Wilhelm, and the new generation of workers coming in isn’t enough to meet the demand.
When the association got word that state prisons were teaching construction trade classes, Wilhelm arranged a visit for a closer look at what inmates were learning and if those skills connected with the needs of the outside.
Inside prisons, she found undiscovered talent.
“We found that a lot of the inmates had former experience in the construction fields that we were looking for,” Wilhelm said. “It opened our eyes that there’s probably some undiscovered talent that we had out of there.”
She got a handful of Phoenix-area construction industry contractors, including Austin Electric, to participate in job fairs inside the prisons.
Inmates could join if they were at least 60 days from release, were serving time for drug felonies or minor offenses and had an interest in trades like framing, masonry, electrical, roofing, painting, drywall and landscaping.
For contractors, the job fairs are an opportunity to fill an employment gap. For inmates, a chance to change.
“It’s a win for the community, it’s a win for the individual, it’s a win for the company,” Wilhelm said.
According to Charles Ryan, director of the state Department of Corrections, lack of housing, lack of employment and substance abuse are the three main factors that contribute to former inmates return to prison.
In Arizona prisons, the recidivism rate is about 40 percent, according to the Department of Corrections.
A job, a place of hope and a trade
When she got out of prison, Katie Wesolek, who has an MBA degree in human resources, couldn’t find a job.
“I applied for everything I could. I have a lot of experience but because of my felonies there wasn’t a whole lot of opportunities for me,” Wesolek said.
The one job she found was passing out fliers on the sidewalk, but that wasn’t enough to make a living.
Wesolek came across Austin Electric. They gave her an opportunity through the training program and she ran with it.
She wires between two to three houses a day, she said on a recent morning standing below the wooden skeleton of a home in Gilbert. Small bits of wood dust stuck to her skin.
Around her, plumbers and framers worked on the 3,100-square-foot home to the sound of Mexican banda music. Wesolek, 39, would be done wiring the whole house on her own by early afternoon.
She likes the job, she said.
“It’s physical, I get to use my brain. It’s a lot of fun,” Wesolek said.
She began work with Austin Electric nine months ago, and she bought a work truck and is paying off fines and bills.
Haxton, who’s her supervisor, is also doing things he had never done before such as buying the car he’s wanted since he was a little kid, a red 2005 Chevrolet Corvette C6. The Phoenix resident also bought a jet ski which he took for its first ride recently on Lake Pleasant.
“I’m doing so good right now,” he said, smiling. “This job literally has opened up my eyes, I’m feeling great.”
He wishes more people would give formerly incarcerated people a chance, instead of assuming they’re criminals and untrustworthy.
“People do change. That’s what society needs to understand these days. Yeah I’ve been there, and did what we did, but people change,” Haxton said.
Barbush, who runs the training program, said he understands why some are taken aback to the idea of hiring folks with felony convictions. But for him that point of view isn’t improving anything.
“If you give them a place of hope, a job and teach them a trade they can have for the rest of their life … And not only teach them a trade but teach them how to be a better communicator, teach them how to deal with conflict in a professional manner.
If we can do this for these guys, why wouldn’t we? Bettering our communities, why wouldn’t we?” Barbush said.
“We really do try to produce not only good electricians, but to produce good people.
“Good solid, sound, moral employees that are going to be not only loyal to us, but they’re going to be loyal to their families, their friends, their wives, their kids,” Barbush said.
More job opportunities for inmates
Austin Electric will continue to recruit more inmates, said Barbush, thanks to a program from the Department of Corrections that kicked off this spring.
The agency set up three employment centers where low- to medium-security inmates in the final 60 days of their sentences are transferred. There, they are taught job interview skills and get to work on their resumes.
Employers go to these centers and interview every person interested.
The program has capacity for:
- 100 inmates in Arizona State Prison Complex-Lewis in Buckeye.
- 48 inmates in the Manzanita Unit in Tucson.
- 30 inmates in Arizona State Prison Complex-Perryville.
So far about 100 people recently released from state prison have been hired full time through these employment centers, Wilhelm said.
Ryan, from the Department of Corrections, said the interest from construction contractors to hire offenders is among many of the ways recidivism could be curbed.
“The construction industry has stepped up,” Ryan said. “There are employment opportunities for inmates that are coming out of prison… If the offender has interest and is willing to work hard.”
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