Michigan’s skilled trades offer opportunities for everyone

July 20, 2016

By Anna Heaton, Press Secretary

Ninety-five percent of the men and women currently imprisoned in Michigan will one day leave prison, which amounts to roughly 40,000 people who will be outside the prison walls in the future. The main test of whether someone will re-offend is simple: do they have a job? The answer for many is no. And so they end up back in prison, and the cycle begins again.

Everyone comes by opportunity in different ways. Some of us cut our teeth at first-time employment in a family business. Some have no work experience prior to attending a university. Many are trained at vocational schools or community college. And some never have much opportunity at all — until they are behind bars.

Under the direction of Corrections Director Heidi Washington, the Richard A. Handlon facility in Ionia has established “Vocational Village,” a skilled trades instructional facility that includes woodworking, welding and fabricating, and plumbing and advanced auto mechanics. The prisoners’ days are structured to mirror an entire workday outside the prison walls. They also receive “soft skills” training, including resume writing, interviewing techniques and budgeting to pay rent and bills.

In the woodworking shop, students build and finish cabinets for Habitat for Humanity homes. The men here had designed and built an incredible American flag to gift the Governor for his office. One of the students was busy at work on a unique wine rack. Chris Chavanne, who the Governor spoke with at length in the woodworking shop, had recently completed a Skype interview with Rockford Construction, where he plans to begin work upon his release in November.

Local employers are starting to take note of the talent and work ethic of residents who are returning to society, and more than 50 companies from the Grand Rapids-area have toured the Vocational Village to see the specific equipment prisoners are being trained on and the quality of their work. With an unemployment rate of 3.2 percent in Kent County, these employers need skilled workers to step in and be able to perform from day one on the job, which is why the Vocational Village is filling multiple needs — they train students in job skills to help improve their chance of securing long-term employment and reduce recidivism rates, and in addition they are filling the needs of local employers who report difficulty finding skilled trades workers to hire.

During the tour, I was struck by how similar the environment was to the community college classrooms we visit across the state. The equipment, books and instructors were remarkably similar. The only notable difference was the enthusiasm among the students. For many of them, this is the first time someone has worked patiently and thoroughly to teach them how to use their brain, their hands — their abilities. Many of the men remarked that had they been trained in a skill earlier, maybe they wouldn’t be behind bars at all.

The other common refrain we heard throughout the day is how the educational opportunities at the facility aren’t just changing prisoners individually — they are changing the entire culture at Handlon. The warden told us that when Vocational Village began, many prisoners were skeptical it would lead to anything of value. Now, they truly believe it will help them get jobs in the future. They feel more hope about what’s waiting for them outside of the walls. They feel pride in their work and know they have potential. It has changed overall behavior at the prison — misconduct has fallen dramatically.

Throughout the last year, Gov. Snyder has placed an emphasis on the critical importance of training Michiganders for the skilled trades. He truly believes the future growth of Michigan’s economy depends on its talent base. And on Friday, he was clear that this talent base includes everyone.

Read more from the Detroit Free Press and Crain’s Detroit Business:

Michigan prison program offers chance to learn trade, hope of a job

Job training program at state prison aims to help inmates find work upon release