SPEDA announces expansion of inmate training program

SOMERSET, Ky. — The Somerset-Pulaski County Economic Development Authority (SPEDA) introduced industrial leaders to an evolving initiative Thursday to grow Pulaski County’s workforce while also helping incarcerated men and women gain a new start on life when they are released.

During the second installment of SPEDA’s Industrial Leaders Breakfast series, more than 50 leaders representing 26 Pulaski County businesses listened as those involved in implementing the CRITICAL program — Comprehensive Rehabilitation of Inmates Transforming Individuals, Community and Livelihoods — described its purpose and encouraged local businesses to participate.

This three-phase program will offer soft skills and technical training to inmates at the Pulaski County Detention Center, while also creating a transformational center inside the jail where employees can learn about job opportunities available and interview.

Inmates who complete the program will receive 30 days off time served. And by being better prepared to reenter the workforce, they are less likely to return to jail, SPEDA President and CEO Chris Girdler said.

“We must do our best to help those incarcerated,” Girdler said. “This is a pool for our workforce. Where else can you go to get a built-in pool of employees to train, while also making a difference in their lives?”

Pulaski County Jailer Anthony McCollum told the crowd that Pulaski County has one of the two most overcrowded jails in the state. In lieu of building a new jail that would be costly to taxpayers, he began to look for alternatives.

“I got to thinking, there has to be more that we can do,” McCollum said. “Working together as a community, we can solve problems. I knew as a community if we bonded together, we could figure it out.”

It wasn’t long before Girdler approached him about partnering on this project. “I said, ‘You know, that’s exactly what I’ve been looking for,’” McCollum said.

The initiative began in August by implementing soft-skills training at the jail. The curriculum, developed by human behavior and organization dynamics expert Greg Coker, teaches inmates important interpersonal skills — communication, team-building, problem-solving, leadership and work ethic — vital to successful collaboration in the workplace.

But Girdler, McCollum, and Somerset Community College (SCC) Vice President of Workforce Solutions Alesa Johnson have had plans to expand the program from the beginning.

Johnson explained to the group the pathway inmates in the CRITICAL program will take. It begins with the already existing soft-skills training. Once an inmate starts that curriculum, then CRITICAL leaders will determine if that inmate also needs technical training to learn a specific industry skill. Welding, industrial maintenance, concrete finishing or information technology are examples of these types of training, Johnson said. If the answer is yes, the inmate will meet with an adviser and begin a college course track to earn the appropriate certification. If the answer is no, the inmate will instead take professional skills courses to further prepare them for job interviews.

After these two phases are complete an adviser will send the inmate’s resumé to potential employers. The inmate will interview until hired and will begin working until his or her release. If jobs are not immediately available, CRITICAL will provide training for the inmate on support services so he or she is successful in getting a job after release.

Knowing what types of jobs might be available is vital to this program’s success, Johnson said.

“We’re asking you, do you support this as a community?” Johnson said. “We feel very strongly that we want to give people that we can a second chance. … We’ve got to find out who is willing to work as a partner with us, and then we want your feedback on if there are jobs that they can do and offer those to the inmates.”

Johnson has applied for a $300,000 Kentucky Community and Technical College System (KCTCS) innovation grant to help kick-start the program. If awarded, funding will help provide advisers and coaches, transportation, and construction trade classes, Johnson said.

Partnerships are already being created with educational institutions to expand the program, including Eastern Kentucky University, which is one of only 26 sites across the country that is an authorized Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) education institute. EKU is already working with federal prisons in McCreary County and Manchester, where 35 to 40 inmates a month are exiting these prisons through a similar program.

“It’s extremely important for your employees to be safe and to know safety in every aspect,” said Mardi Montgomery, senior executive director of workforce development for EKU. “EKU is extremely willing to come and partner. We want to see this happen in this community and replicate it in other communities.”

In addition to the soft-skills curriculum used at the jail, Coker provides coaching and training programs that focus on purpose and engagement as a catalyst for personal transformation. He told the group that Somerset has the opportunity to be a model for Kentucky and the nation by implementing this program.

“With the reentry program we’re talking about, there are a lot of women and men who look a lot like you and me,” Coker said. “There’s a lot of them out there that have the skills, talents, desire and motivation that you and I do to get employed. If we don’t hire them in six months, guess what? The odds of them going back are pretty high.”