The Next Step expands efforts to increase ex-offender job placement

Business HandshakeThe Next Step, Inc., a Lenexa, Kan.-based company that helps ex-offenders find employment and employers gain tax benefits for hiring them, is set to sign its first statewide contract with the state of Ohio this spring.

The company manages the CoFFE – Cooperative of Felon Friendly Employers – database, a nationwide network of employers who are willing to hire ex-offenders. It works with agencies and facilities that manage reentry for those leaving prisons.

“Fifty-percent of the Federal Bureau of Prison facilities enroll prisoners in The Next Step before their release,” says Julia Peterson, the company’s operations manager.

How it works: A felon being released from prison registers with The Next Step. They do it by locating the supervisory agency on the company’s website and filling out a form at

Those whose supervisory agency is not included on The Next Step’s website should have their case manager or parole or probation officer get in touch with the company.

Once registered, The Next Step matches that person with three ex-offender friendly employers based on the candidate’s geographical location and skill set and sends the list of those employers to the facility’s case manager. Rather than phone the potential employer, the candidate is urged to visit them and take a flyer explaining the Work Opportunity Tax Credit that companies will be able to obtain if they hire the ex-offender. Candidates can get free job leads for a year after their release.

If the candidate is not hired by one of the three leads provided, The Next Step will give their case manager three more leads. Once hired, The Next Step will contact the company that employs them, and through its sister company, WOTC Solutions, offer to help that company apply for the Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which is done for a fee and helps fund the system and keep it going. Employers must file the application for the WOTC within 28 days of the employee’s start date.

The WOTC can be of great benefit to employers and a good reason for why they might want to hire ex-offenders. This federal program offers employers an up to $2,400 tax credit if they hire a member of nine targeted groups of people, including ex-offenders, who encounter barriers to employment. Companies can get up to this amount for each qualified employee they hire.

While major corporations usually have a tax screening service in place, WOTC Solutions appeals to smaller businesses, according to Peterson. “The best luck we have is with the small and medium-sized businesses – people who run their own businesses and have five to 50 employees,” she says. “Those people have time to hear about it (the program) and are often the ones who are hiring people with a blemished past.“

The Next Step has thousands of employers, ranging from those hiring manual labor to those looking for white-collar office workers, in its database. Where the company has the most success, however, is with call centers, restaurants and construction companies, all businesses that experience high turnover. Staffing companies are also good candidates, says Peterson.

While the company works with correctional facilities around the nation, this spring it will sign a statewide contract with Ohio to handle all the facilities in the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction. “This will give us a better example of how this works best, and we’ll have statistics and results to show others,” Peterson said.

She hopes more states will follow Ohio’s example, opening up more opportunities for ex-offenders to find good jobs and employers to find good workers.

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America Works succeeds matching ex-offenders with employers

America Works’ Oakland office’s clients are referred by select Alameda County deputy probation officers.

While many job developers seem to find working with ex-offenders a particular challenge, one company has found a successful niche in outcome-based prison-to-work (and welfare-to-work) programs.

With operations in New York City; Chicago; Washington, D.C.; Baltimore; Newark and Mount Laurel, N.J.; Albany, N.Y.; and Oakland, Calif, America Works is an employment agency – or employment service as it refers to itself – but an employment agency with a difference.

It partners with government agencies to serve hard-to-place individuals, and among the company’s many programs is one in Oakland, Calif. that works with the Alameda County Probation Department through its America Works of California, Inc. division. During its first six years in Oakland, the company’s efforts were funded by the city’s Measure Y initiative, which was passed by Oakland voters in 2004 and provides $20 million per year through a parcel tax to fund a variety of services including those dealing with reentry.

America Works’ Measure Y funding is coming to an end, and it is now working with Alameda County, where Oakland is located, to serve those affected by the state’s so called “public safety realignment.” To deal with its severely overcrowded state prison population, the California Assembly passed AB (Assembly Bill) 109, which went into effect on Oct. 1, 2011, and realigns certain responsibilities for lower level offenders, adult parolees and juvenile offenders from state to local jurisdictions.

“The probation departments’ caseloads have gone through the roof with the realignment,” says Matt Ericksen, executive director of America Works of California. “If the state wants to be successful, it has to get these guys back to work.”

And that’s where America Works comes in. It receives referrals from select deputy probation officers for ex-offenders who are categorized as post-release, community supervised under AB109. “Fifty-three percent of those referred to us actually come in,” Ericksen says. Some of them have found other things, and others just don’t want to work, he adds.

Those who come to America Works receive job readiness training that concentrates on soft skills, computer skills and issues like anger management. Staff members do a needs assessment and help them obtain things like a driver’s license and social security card, and connect them to various social service agencies to get food, housing, interview clothing and substance treatment if needed.

Once participants complete the job readiness training they meet with the company’s job developer, who spends a great deal of time and effort developing relationships with many communities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, getting to know the employers and potential opportunities.

It’s not just about finding the right job for an applicant, however, but about finding the right applicant for a particular job and company, something America Works has become quite skilled at. The recidivism rate for those who have found work through its efforts is only 5 percent, according to Ericksen.

Industries that the company focuses on are construction, retail, telemarketing, transportation and food. It also received training dollars to offer the 40-hour HazWOpER (hazardous waste site worker) certification training about a year and a half ago – with participants placed in positions in a variety of places, including the Chevron Refinery in Richmond, Calif. – and is currently in the process of putting together another class.

The company’s job developer places more than 100 ex-offenders each year, and this year will place more than 138.

The key to the job developer’s success?  “It’s not only understanding the employer but also understanding the job seeker. One of the first questions she asks is what can you do and what do you want to do,” Ericksen says. “We had someone come in who was an artist, and we found him a job in a tattoo studio.”

In spite of the company’s achievements, it hasn’t been easy. “One challenge is the level of frustration. So many doors have been slammed in their face,” he adds. “It takes a little bit of time. Sometimes people will call and say, ‘Why haven’t you found me a job?’”

Ericksen and his colleagues understand the frustration and do everything they can to help ensure their clients find – and keep – jobs.

“The most successful guys coming out of prison are those with a support system. If they don’t have one, we provide it. We stay engaged and keep them engaged,” he says.

For more information about America Works, check out its website at


CEO expands its reach to help more ex-offenders find employment

San Diego CEO crew member does landscaping work for the city of Chula Vista.

CEO, the Center for Employment Opportunities, has expanded beyond New York State, where it began, to more widely offer employment services to those with recent criminal convictions.

Focusing its attention on California, the nonprofit opened offices in San Francisco and San Diego last year and is currently scouting another California location in the Central Valley or Inland Empire in which to set up shop by 2014.

CEO’s program model helps people coming out of prison enter the workforce by giving them life skills education, short-term paid transitional employment, full-time job placement and post-placement services.

“In 2005, CEO began a three-year random assignment evaluation of the program that ran through 2008, and based on the results of that evaluation, we found a significant reduction in recidivism – 20 percent,” says Bill Heiser, the Oakland, Calif.-based director of California operations. “That gave CEO the confidence to expand outside of NYC.”  The expansion began in upstate New York with offices in Buffalo, Albany, Rochester and Binghamton.

Two social innovation awards – one from the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation and the other from REDF (The Roberts Enterprise Development Fund) – allowed CEO to move beyond New York State and establish offices in Tulsa and California.

Why California? “California is where the need is. It has the largest number of people under supervision and the largest prison system,” says Heiser.

In Oakland, Volunteers of America is implementing the actual work program, while CEO provides the job development and job placement services. Through a contract with Caltrans, the program’s work crews do litter abatement on highways within a 20-mile radius of Oakland. Currently 49 parolees, both men and women, are involved. On average, Oakland CEO will serve about 150 people per year.

The San Diego CEO office, which is wholly owned and operated by the organization, works with the city of Chula Vista’s public works department to do various jobs, including landscaping and maintenance of the city’s parks and light janitorial work. The program, which began in December, now involves 30 people.

Wherever it operates, the CEO program has four phases. “Participants are referred to us from parole or probation. They attend a four-day life skills education class in which they’re oriented to the program, and the following Monday they go to work on one of our transitional work crews,” says Heiser. Participants receive a daily paycheck, as well as a daily evaluation from their work crew supervisor.

Each participant works four days a week and on the fifth day meets with a job developer to prepare for a nonsubsidized full-time job. After they’re placed in a job, they have one year of job-related support services.

They’re also paid to continue involvement in the program. “They receive a fiscal reward (an AmEx card or the like) for checking in with us once a month,” says Heiser. “We vary the incentive, and the amount varies. On the 180th day of employment, for example, we give them more money. In Oakland we might be giving $750 in total if they do everything perfectly. It’s part of our retention services. If they lose the position, however, they can come back and reengage with the work crew and get job counseling again.”

For more information, visit the CEO’s website at


Correctional facility One-Stop helps inmates prepare for employment

In a unique venture that may be the only one of its kind in the country, MongtomeryWorks of Montgomery County, Md. sponsors a One-Stop Career Center at the Montgomery County Correctional Facility in the town of Boyds.

Operated by Workforce Solutions Group, this One-Stop serves a facility that houses as many as 1,028 male and female inmates, who are either in pre-trial or serving terms of up to 18 months.

The One-Stop Career Center consists of a computer lab, an ID center to handle the identification documents they will need and a television room with instructional job search-related videos, as well as a room to practice interviews. Inmates are allowed restricted use of the internet and able to access only a small number of job search related sites. The One-Stop staff consists of a trainer, a reentry coordinator and an administrative staff member.

“We can have anywhere from 25-plus people over the course of a month who will participate in job readiness training,” says Yolanda Tully, director of operations at Workforce Solutions Group Inc. of Montgomery County.  Her staff recruits inmates who are 180 days out from being released to participate in job-readiness training.

Participants complete a four- to six-part series of training modules, which are given in one-and-a-half hour sessions three days each week. In addition to the full curriculum, the One-Stop offers modules for people who might not need the entire program because of time limitations or because it’s too basic, based on an assessment of their abilities.

About 40 to 75 additional people take advantage of the center’s resource and the main volunteers who are involved in the program. The Montgomery County Correctional Facility and MontgomeryWorks Reentry Employment Program developed Careers4 Tomorrow, an initiative to train faith based and community volunteers to work in the One-Stop

In addition, members of Mover Moms, a Bethesda-based group of more than 200 professional women dedicated to community service, come in on Wednesdays to conduct mock interviews.

In some ways this is a regular One-Stop dedicated to help its clients prepare to find employment, but it has very unique challenges not faced in other locations.

“There could be a lockdown and you can’t get the inmates there. Or there could be a day when our staff is just focusing on the administrative work,” says Tully. There are times that getting the list of people who are eligible can be a challenge, because they have to be sentenced individuals, and Tully’s staff has to generate a list of these people in order to do the recruitment. Staff members also have to make sure the guards are reminding the inmates of the different programs, she adds.

Businesses come to recruit at the center each week, but those who don’t have jobs upon release can visit a Baltimore One-Stop that’s dedicated to serving only ex-offenders or another One-Stop Career Center close to where they end up settling.

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