Indiana Begins Hiring Ex-Inmates And Students To Fill Jobs

Sep 7, 2017
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In some corners of northern Indiana, there are help wanted signs on nearly every corner. Employers just can't find enough people to fill their jobs, and that's pushed some of them to look for workers in unusual places. Jennifer Weingart of member station WVPE Elkhart, Ind., reports.

JENNIFER WEINGART, BYLINE: Elkhart County is the nation's top RV manufacturer, and right now that industry is booming. Nearly 9 million households own RVs this year. That's up by about a million in the last decade. This has contributed to the low unemployment rate. The unemployment rate in Elkhart County is about 2 percent, which economists say is effectively zero. These are largely blue-collar jobs with good wages. Many start at more than $15 an hour.

Janet Reason is a business services representative with Indiana's employment agency called WorkOne. Her program focuses on inmates and pairs them with businesses that are desperate for workers.

JANET REASON: We say, are you felon-friendly just like that. And if they say yes or no, we're like, all right. And we let them know. We work with the folks in Elkhart county jail.

WEINGART: Reason runs a once-a-month workshop at the jail to talk about inmates' skills, resumes and what to say in an interview about their incarceration. Travis Keeter is serving time on theft and drug charges, but he has professional certification and says he could be working if he wasn't locked up. He's glad to have the workshop to help him learn how to address his jail time with potential employers.

TRAVIS KEETER: It does feel like sometimes you have a monkey on your back when you get locked. And when you're re-entering the workforce when there's that big void in your work history, sometimes having somebody like Janet to help us out helps out.

WEINGART: Inside the jail isn't the only place employers are looking for workers. They're also scouting out local middle schools. A few years ago, Elkhart schools started taking eighth graders on a field trip to local factories. They call it Manufacturing Day. They're trying to show the kids and their parents that with higher safety standards and automation, it's not your parents' factory anymore.

JACKIE O'HARA: If they're not exposed to it, they're not going to know about it.

WEINGART: Jackie O'Hara is with the Elkhart Area Career Center. She places students in internships and practicums and helps them find jobs when they graduate.

O'HARA: It really is moving down to lower grades because you have to plant that seed early.

WEINGART: The Career Center is for high school juniors and seniors. Kids from 16 local schools take classes in more than 20 career areas. Those in highest demand are machining, welding, engineering and automation. That's great news for machining teacher Mike Youngs.

MIKE YOUNGS: This is the first week of school. I've already had a shop call and want a kid already. So it's starting.

WEINGART: Jonathon Nelson is a senior in Youngs' class. He says he likes how they get to learn.

JONATHON NELSON: We enjoy doing the geeky stuff. We've made shields. We've made lightsabers. We've made about anything that you can think of.

WEINGART: Youngs has 30 students, though he doesn't see all of them every day. He says most are at their factory internships and getting paid to learn. This year will be Jonathon Nelson's second year working at Lippert Components, a company that makes parts used in RVs and houses. Right now as a high school senior, he makes $14 an hour as an intern. Nelson has been promised a full-time job at Lippert once he graduates. The company will also pay most of his college tuition. And as of now, he says he plans to stay in northern Indiana. And that's something businesses in Elkhart County will be glad to hear. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Weingart in Elkhart, Ind.

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