Former New Jersey prisoners may have an easier time finding sustainable work in the construction sector thanks to new state grant money for a pre-apprenticeship training program.
The New Jersey Reentry Corporation (NJRC), headed by former Gov. Jim McGreevey, has just been awarded $843,000 by the New Jersey Department of Labor and Workforce Development to fund its already established training program for underserved individuals — including former prisoners, women, and minorities — for employment in the state building and construction trades.
The pre-apprenticeship program, NJBuild, is open to individuals in seven counties (Hudson, Essex, Passaic, Middlesex, Monmouth, Middlesex, and Somerset) throughout northern and central New Jersey; with the fresh funding, it will take on new participants starting on September 4. NJBuild serves as a precursor to union-required apprenticeship and training programs in construction and provides participants with access to education, certification, and hands-on training to prepare them for the field.
Edwin Ortiz, an NJBuild participant, went to prison at age 19 and spent 30 years locked up. When he got out in 2016, he connected with the NJ Reentry Corp. and is now in the first year of the bricklayers’ apprenticeship.
“I’m trying to be a role model for the rest of the men and women coming out of prison back into society,” Ortiz said at an announcement of the new funding in Woodbridge yesterday. “In prison everything is free, but when you come home nothing is free,” he said.
Preparation for union jobs
NJRC helped Ortiz get his Social Security card, driver’s license, and other necessary documents as well as giving him access to education and rigorous job training through NJBuild.
“I want to make sure that the door of opportunity doesn’t close but gets wider so the men and women coming after me have the same opportunities that I was given,” Ortiz said.
Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, a longtime supporter of re-entry programs also spoke on yesterday and praised the program. “We have learned that sometimes people do not get equal access to opportunity,” Oliver said. “I think this is a great program that it is going to serve as a model that can be replicated in other places.”
NJBuild is a comprehensive pre-apprenticeship program, which means it prepares people with little to no construction experience for the rigors of the job and ensures that they should be able to pass union-required entrance exams and handle training and apprenticeship programs for their desired trade.
The program is in its third year and will support two sessions, one in the fall and another starting in January 2019, serving 200 enrollees in total.
The $843,000 comes from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development through the New Jersey Builders Utilization Initiative for Labor Diversity grants (NJBUILD). NJRC also announced it will be partnering with Hudson County Freeholder Bill O’Dea who obtained a separate $200,000 grant on behalf of the county. (All the grants were originally announced in May.)
Eight sites, 4,000 clients
The fiscal year 2019 budget estimated $3,494,000 for NJBUILD grants for 2018, meaning more than 24 percent of that funding is going to the NJRC pre-apprenticeship program.
Earlier this year, McGreevey had called out Gov. Phil Murphy for failing to include funding for NJRC in his original budget proposal. Funding was restored in the final budget to the tune of $4 million. That money goes toward running NJRC’s eight sites and assisting its 4,000 clients.
McGreevey told reporters yesterday he doesn’t foresee another budget battle in the near future. “We’ll get it every year,” he said.
Indeed, Oliver promised, “Jim, continue what you’re doing and just know, we’re going to always look out for you in the budget.”
The money will go to pay for such items as recruitment programs; proficiency tests in reading comprehension and applied math; drug tests; workforce readiness skills such as resume reviews and interview skills, and academic tutoring.
Graduates of the NJBuild program can come out with General Construction certification and an Occupational Safety Health Administration (OSHA) 30 card — a 30-hour certification for construction supervisors or foremen. OSHA30 is a step above OSHA10, the designation for a standard construction worker.
Coughlin: Best social program ‘is a job’
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin was also on hand to support the program and NJRC in general.
“The Reentry Corporation is a real gem in the state of New Jersey … it makes sense economically, it makes sense socially, it makes sense because it changes people’s lives.” He added that “the best social program we all know, it’s cliched at this point, but it’s a job. It brings you pride in what you do and brings pride to your family …. that’s the best thing that we can do for people.”
State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) who has spearheaded many prisoner re-entry initiatives in the Legislature also gave her resounding support.
“We can’t build a greater New Jersey without making sure that our street corners are clear in our urban areas because people have opportunities for job training and opportunities for jobs,” she said. “We have to reach out and help the person coming up — the person standing below. That’s the only way our state will be great and we will be great as human beings.”
NJBuild will train its next set of entrants from September through December and aims to place them in jobs by January-February next year.
“What we’re doing is transforming peoples’ lives,” McGreevey said. “Edwin will never again be in prison. Edwin is a taxpayer. Edwin is a proud father. Edwin is giving back to the community. This is a smart investment.”