Apprenticeship program at Iowa Department of Corrections has graduated 70

Out of prison, into a job

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ANAMOSA — Most ex-offenders struggle to get jobs after prison, which can lead them back to crime, national studies show.

Not Steve Shewry.

“I got out of prison Jan. 30 and I was at work Jan. 31,” said Shewry, 39, of Lynnville.

Shewry isn’t bragging; he’s touting the value of a prison apprenticeship program that helped him develop welding skills that landed him a job as a sheet metal worker for Winger Companies, an Ottumwa contractor.

Five months in, Supervisor Andy Noe is glad the company took a chance on Shewry.

“His ability to weld is there,” Noe said. More than that, Shewry is professional, motivated and has a good attitude. “Steve will do anything you ask him to.”

More than 70 Iowa offenders or ex-offenders have completed apprenticeships with the Iowa Department of Corrections since 2015, when the program became registered with the U.S. Department of Labor.

The state now has 19 prison apprenticeships that include plumbing, welding, cooking, computer operation, housekeeping and sewing machine repair.

The work of the apprentices is visible throughout the Anamosa State Penitentiary: flowers planted by landscapers, picnic table legs powder-coated blue and large road signs drying after screen printing.

Not all apprenticeship grads have completed their prison sentences and the Corrections Department doesn’t yet have numbers showing how many ex-offenders have found jobs using their apprenticeship skills. But the department plans to work with the Iowa Workforce Development to start collecting that data this fall.

“The IDOC Registered Apprenticeship Program serves as a model program nationally,” said Greer Sisson, Iowa director for the Labor Department’s Office of Apprenticeship.

‘They wanted me’

Like the heat Steve Shewry applies to metal to make it bend, a four-year welding apprenticeship at the Anamosa penitentiary changed the shape and the direction of his life.

“You go to prison and people look at you differently,” he said.

Shewry served nine years of a 20-year sentence for willful injury and third-degree kidnapping, which were lesser charges negotiated in a plea deal.

While at Anamosa, Shewry worked in the welding shop under Tim Diesburg, the Correction Department’s apprenticeship coordinator. Offenders earn from 60 cents to $2 an hour. Diesburg nudged Shewry to join the apprenticeship program, which requires 6,000 hours of hands-on work and completion of curriculum.

“I prefer the apprenticeship program to be voluntary,” Diesburg said. “If they want to learn, they are more likely to succeed.”

Eleven people have completed the welding apprenticeship. Those graduates may be needed as the nation faces a shortage of skilled welders. The Labor Department projects that by 2024, the construction industry will need to add more than 12,000 more welders a year to keep up with projected growth.

Late last year, Diesburg was at a job fair and met someone from Winger who said the company was seeking skilled welders.

“My name came up,” Shewry said. “I filled out an application and sent in my resume. They said, ‘Give us a call when you get out of prison and we’ve got a job for you.’ They wanted me because of what I’d accomplished.”

Improving the odds

The recidivism rate in Iowa prisons — the percentage of those who are released, offend again and are sent back within three years — for fiscal 2016 was 34.2 percent, up from 31.9 percent in fiscal 2015, according to the Corrections Department. While the rate shows an uptick, it still is lower than it was eight years ago.

Diesburg, who has worked in corrections for 35 years, spends a lot of his time figuring out what skills Iowa companies need and persuading employers to take a chance on prison apprentices. Among the arguments he makes:

l Ninety-five percent of people incarcerated today will be released.

l An estimated one of four American adults has a criminal conviction.

l People who participate in correctional education programs have 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison.

l Correctional education or vocation programs improve ex-offenders’ likelihood of getting a job by 13 percent.

Nationwide, 150 cities and counties have adopted “ban the box” policies so public employers consider a job candidate’s qualifications before looking at his or her criminal record, according to the National Employment Law Project. A smaller number of municipalities also require this practice of private employers.

Diesburg tells employers about perks like the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit, which provides employers up to $2,400 for hiring felons. He also holds job fairs in Iowa prisons and takes soon-to-be-released offenders to job fairs outside prison walls.

“Getting out there and educating employers is a big part of it,” he said.

Last week, Diesburg took Michael Willoughby, 32, who is serving time for second-degree robbery, for an interview with Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa.

“That’s the first time I’ve taken somebody to an interview,” he said.

Willoughby has completed the computer operator apprenticeship, which allows offenders to focus on a variety of computer skills including data entry, graphic design, Braille and coding. The interview at Frontier went well and Willoughby was offered the job, Diesburg said.

The apprenticeship program costs about $150,000 a year, which includes Diesburg’s wages, curriculum, office supplies and travel.

Those costs are paid through grants from the Iowa Economic Development Authority, Iowa Workforce Development and others, as well as the offender phone fund, Diesburg said.

That cost does not include the staff time of other correctional employees who also devote part of their work the apprenticeship program in addition to their other duties.

‘Give somebody a try’

Arlen Phillips, owner of Phillips Machine & Metal Fab near Oskaloosa, never had considered hiring an ex-offender when several community members this year recommended Shewry for contract work.

“I’m willing to give somebody a try if they’re willing to work,” he said.

When Shewry is done with his shift at Winger, he comes to the shop shared by Phillips and his son, Josh Phillips. There, he’s learning to run a lathe and a mill in addition to welding and other metal work.

“He fits in really well,” Phillips said. “The skills he has are really good and he’s willing to learn.”

Shewry works six days a week, but he’s thrilled for the opportunity.

“My main goal when I was released was to make enough money to start a small business of my own,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of who I am now.”

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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