MY SIDE OF THE STREET: ‘Get a job’ easier said than done

Local police blame realignment, and the consequent pressure on the Humboldt County Jail, for the spikes in crime statistics, especially property crimes. A recent cover story in the North Coast MYSIDEOFSTREETJournal highlighted the funding crunch that has reduced the number of beds available in detox houses, where addicts go through withdrawal under supervision, and safe and sober houses, where former addicts have a better chance to stay drug and alcohol free. Just about everyone says former offenders should get jobs.

That sounds so easy – just get a job. But where are the jobs supposed to come from? Many of those who want felons and homeless people to work are the same ones who complain their children and grandchildren can’t find jobs here and have to move out of the area.

Small businesses have some pretty good reasons to be wary about taking a chance on an ex-offender. Many have just a couple of employees, and each hire represents a huge investment. Who could blame them for selecting a candidate who hasn’t been to jail?

Larger companies have other kinds of worries. Legal liability for potential problems raises both blood pressure and insurance premiums. Why take a chance, especially when the applicant has no references?

Training programs for offenders address a lot of those issues. They weed out the unmotivated and teach marketable skills to the rest. The leaders are experienced in working with the population and its special needs.

Unlike many prison work programs, which teach skills such as license-plate production – useless on the outside – good programs concentrate on skills in demand, such as cooking and other kitchen work. No matter how bad the economy is, people still get hungry every day.

In Cleveland, the Lutheran Metropolitan Ministry runs a training kitchen which supplies 1,700 meals per day to four shelters. After a recent move to a larger facility, the director says they could expand to 3,000 meals per day. Trainees who graduate leave with a certificate and a reference, proof they can stick to a job and do it right.

And the menu isn’t burgers and fries, either. The program uses fresh produce and prepares entrees from fresh fish, meat and poultry. The food is healthy, and the skills the ex-offenders learn there will be welcome in high end eateries.

It’s the kind of vocational training which is fast disappearing. College of the Redwoods is shutting down programs which don’t lead to an associate degree or transfer to a four year college. Unions used to operate apprentice training programs, but these days they are busy fighting for their existence.

Humboldt was once a union-friendly place, because the lumber mills and other heavy industries were unionized. As those businesses floundered and died, unions were blamed for their demise, not the business policies that placed short term profit at the top of the priority list. Now few unions are left except for public employees, and they are routinely demonized for advocating for good wages, safe working conditions and benefits – all of which mill workers took for granted 50 years ago.

Modern business practices seem to be modeled on the Ebenezer Scrooge principle that treating workers right is the path to insolvency. Employees who are on the edge of being without transportation, or a place to stay or food to feed their families might need a helping hand once in awhile. All too often what they get is a shove out the door.

That’s just multiplied for ex-offenders, who struggle daily with a constellation of issues which make it hard to get and keep a job. We all have bad days, make mistakes and fall into bad company, but people with a criminal record seldom get a break. A little understanding can make a big difference.

There is no shortage of people deserving an opportunity to get their lives back on track. It’s easy to say this one or another should have priority. But it’s perfectly obvious that ex-offenders who can’t get work are more likely to fall back into a life of crime than those who can get training and a job.

A small pilot program probably would cost several hundred thousand dollars, most of which would go to consultants, analysts and planners. Or maybe a few businesses owners with suitable job openings could call the probation office and ask if there is a client with the right skills. It might not work, but that is true of every hiring situation.

There are plenty of bosses with a DUI or more who got a break themselves and might be in a position to help someone else out. No one person can save the world, but small steps add up. Those who complain the most ought to at least consider trying to help.

(Elizabeth Alves calls on people who want government dismantled to pick up a share of the burden. Comments and suggestions are welcome care of the Press or to

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  1. Really said:

    Wow. Covered, the need for ex convicts and substance abusers to find jobs, to the lack of jobs for them, to demonizing those who want our cities and county to keep the salaries and benefits and pensions they pay to all employees, including public safety, in check, (rather than facing the situations of Vallejo, Stockton and San Bernardino for paying salaries and providing benefits and pension contributions and pension benefits (medical) that they could not afford at the time, let alone in the future, now in Bankruptcy) to the demonizing of the business/corporate world. A mixed bag, of course.

    Jobs are hard to find, especially in this area. That needs to be the focus; creating good, sustainable jobs beyond fast food, part time, and retail clerks. Creating jobs solely for ex convicts is a loosing proposition – the focus becomes a combination of hiring someone with a checkered history, being hopeful, and providing social counseling to keep checking on the person. I own a business. I don’t have that kind of time. I need and have employees who are qualified for the job (1 person is over qualified, my benefit because of the job market) and don’t need my constant over seeing or “double checking.” I’m not their mother or father and don’t want to be. They don’t want me to be either. We need to do what we can to improve our economy and create jobs. Those with a checkered past will face a more difficult road in finding a job, but it is not impossible. But I would not ask business owners to change the job or add different training just to hire from this pool of ex convicts.

  2. Retired Umpire said:

    I understand the empathy Ms. Alves has for ex-convicts needing a break, but in this job market they are going to be at the bottom of the heap when it comes to hiring. If you have the need for a reliable used automobile, are you going to spend your money on a 1986 Yugo or a 2010 Ford when the asking price for both is exactly the same?

    As for her comment on making license plates being “usless on the outside”, sheetmetal fabrication can be a very good job. It really doesn’t matter whether you are cutting, stamping, and finishing a license plate or a computer enclosure, the machinery, set up, understanding of tools & dies, and finishing processes are the same. If you become experienced at it you have a chance. There may not be an abundance of sheetmetal fabrication shops in this area, but there are in other areas of the state and the country. If ex-convicts need to move to where the jobs are, they wouldn’t be the first to do so. Think “Grapes Of Wrath”.

    Ms. Alves is also right that there are “plenty of bosses” that have made mistakes and have gotten breaks, but let’s be real here. Most ex-convicts were not incarcerated for their very first offense. The way our justice system works these days most of them are repeat offenders several times over before they are imprisoned. Does that mean they don’t deserve a break? Of course not, but not at the expense of someone else who doesn’t have a criminal record who is applying for the same job. Why should someone who has obeyed the law and made good life choices play second fiddle to an ex-convict simply so the ex-convict can receive a “break”?

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