From the GEO Archives: Providing the Skills for a Fresh Start

Last month, the GEO Archives featured the five regional workshops and trade shows focused on Green Energy and Green Collar Jobs that GEO hosted in 2009. This month we are sharing a program that has been underway since 2015, and continues today. Beginning five years ago, GEO and its business members have partnered with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections (ODRC) to train offenders through the “Understanding Photovoltaics” program and endeavored to place them in the Ohio solar industry after release.

One of the significant challenges facing men as they leave prison is finding a good job – especially one that provides a living wage and an opportunity for growth. Numerous studies have shown that steady employment reduces recidivism and increases the likelihood of full participation in society. Through the Richland Correctional Institution’s Reintegration Unit, offenders have an opportunity to learn skills that contribute to those outcomes. The Understanding Photovoltaics program provides a 12-week training course in solar technology and installation for approximately twenty offenders. Each week, students spend four hours in the classroom and two hours engaged in hands-on work on solar panel technology. Out of each class, three to five top performers are selected to take the Electronics Technicians Association, International (ETA) certification test. The students have a 94 percent passing rate, with the majority scoring over 90 percent on the exam.

A coalition of dedicated partners has contributed funds, materials, equipment, and time to the program since its beginning. Those partners include the Wayne County Sustainable Energy Network (WCSEN), YellowLite, Blue Rock Station, Dovetail Solar and Wind, and the Richland Correctional Institution’s Recycling Program. GEO Board member Fred Michel administers the ETA examinations on a pro bono basis. Resumes from offenders preparing for release are shared with GEO business members. Several news outlets have written about the program, including the Columbus Dispatch and the Energy News Network. ODRC received the Green Achievement Award for Government from GEO in 2019 for this program.

However, in order to overcome systemic barriers facing former offenders, the program needs more support. GEO has written a grant proposal to create a new apprenticeship program that will facilitate the placement of former offenders and provide a method of tracking their success. Funds from the grant would be used to offset 50 percent of the first six months of an all-in salary for six graduates of the Understanding Photovoltaics program hired by Ohio solar companies. The apprenticeship period would give former offenders an opportunity to put their skills directly to work and allow companies a specific period of time for on-site training and individual assessment. GEO would work with the ORDC Reintegration Unit Case Manager to establish criteria for selection of program graduates for the apprenticeship based on their academic performance and technical skills. GEO and ODRC would match offenders with companies based on location, workload, and opportunities for additional training. The success of the program would be measured by performance evaluations, retention rates, and achievement of new technical certifications.

Despite ETA credentials, resume workshops, and mock interviews, a prison record can negatively impact the chances of gaining employment. This apprenticeship program would give former offenders a head start in resuming their lives. GEO is actively seeking potential funders with an interest in reducing recidivism, enhancing job training programs, and supporting the solar industry.

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