Pre-apprenticeship program helps underserved with employment

Edwin Ortiz spent all of his adult life behind bars. When he was released two years ago, he had never used a computer or smartphone. He lacked the basic skills necessary to fill out a job application.

“I served 30 years in the prison system, and unfortunately our prison system is not geared toward re-acclimating and helping men and women prepare to come back to society,” Ortiz said.

But those days are behind him now. Ortiz is an apprentice with the International Union of Bricklayers and Allied Craftworkers. His success is being touted thanks to NJ Build — a job training program through the New Jersey Reentry Corporation for the underserved and formerly incarcerated.

“It’s about giving people a second chance, but not just telling them God bless and good luck, giving them training so they have a purpose. Giving them training so they have a job,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey.

McGreevey launched the pre-apprenticeship program with the help of an $850,000 grant through the New Jersey Department of Labor with partnership from the Department of Transportation. Candidates like Ortiz get education prep for union entrance exams, linked to union job placement and earn OSHA 10 certification.

“It’s a career. It’s a skill that I’m learning that I can use. Something that can’t be taken away from me,” Ortiz said.

“I just recently had my first child last year. She has a brittle bone disease, and through this program I was actually able to receive the proper health care for her,” said NJ Build client Corey Rhett.

“It’s so much cheaper than prison. We’re willing to spend $55,000 a year for 20 years, over a million dollars, and nobody blinks an eye. This program is $2,200 for New Jersey Reentry per client, and then we get $800,000 from the Department of Labor, but what we’re doing is we’re transforming people’s lives,” McGreevey said.

The program also helps candidates clean up their past, earn a GED and get a driver’s license. The Department of Transportation commissioner says there’s a shortage of strong labor in the state and this is just the pipeline they need.

“There is no better money spent than the dollars we spend on other people’s lives,” said Department of Transportation Commissioner Diane Gutierrez-Scaccetti.

Money for McGreevey’s Reentry Corporation was on the chopping block in Gov. Phil Murphy’s proposed budget. Lawmakers were quick to remind him about the hard-fought cash.

“Jim, continue what you’re doing, and just know we’re going to always look out for you in the budget,” said Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver.

It takes about nine to 12 months to go through the apprenticeship program. So far about 120 people have graduated and another 220 plus are expected to be admitted. If you’re looking for an application, McGreevey says you can find one at your local legislator’s office.

Chasing the Dream: Poverty and Opportunity in America is a multiplatform public media initiative that provides a deeper understanding of the impact of poverty on American society. Major funding for this initiative is provided by the JPB Foundation. Additional funding is provided by Ford Foundation.