TAMPA — For men coming out of jail, the Carpenters' Workbench Training Program offered a new start.
Everyone participating would get two weeks of classroom training and two weeks of $10-an-hour on-the-job training. Then they would be placed in full-time construction jobs that paid just as well, if not better.
It was a big opportunity for men whose backgrounds make them hard to employ, even in a good economy.
"Other programs teach you about opportunity, but this program gives you opportunity," 49-year-old Perry Horton said on the first day.
An East Tampa nonprofit, the Corporation to Develop Communities, had a federal grant to run the program. Able Body Labor of Clearwater would provide on-the-job training through its subsidiary, Training U.
The first Carpenters' Workbench class came together in January. For two weeks, 18 ex-offenders learned to frame doors and reinforce trenches, their hard hats and hammers bought by grant money. A St. Petersburg Times reporter was there to follow their progress.
Then it came time to get the men permanent positions.
For most, it never happened.
Just one man finished the training program and graduated with a permanent full-time construction job. Several others got lower-paying work on their own, some in the food industry. Four men went back to jail or prison.
"It was just a scam," said James Bostick, who ended up working at Panera Bread.
That's a strong word. But there's no question that the people running Carpenters' Workbench achieved little with the first chunk of the $500,000 federal grant — and that the men in the program got less than promised.
Toni Watts, chief executive officer of the Corporation to Develop Communities, blames the economically depressed building industry, transportation problems and men unwilling to work.
"It is proving to be a harder challenge for Able Body than they had thought in the beginning," she said.
Todd Wiseman, an Able Body project manager, acknowledges that things didn't go as planned. His company offered to refund the grant money and pull out two months ago, believing it hadn't lived up to expectations.
"We have lost a lot of sleep over it," he said.
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East Tampa is in desperate need of what the CDC offers. The state calls it an "urban high crime district." On average, residents earn just more than $10,000 a year, and 17 percent of adults over 25 have not completed high school.
In 2006, the CDC got $1.7-million in federal money — 85 percent of its budget — to create jobs, help aspiring business owners and find people employment and homes. About 70 percent of its clients are ex-offenders in a county that attracts more released prisoners than any other in the state, according to state corrections officials.
Since 1992, the CDC has built houses, businesses and youth centers, and rallied neighbors with antidrug marches.
Mayor Pam Iorio and Rep. Kathy Castor were at a January ceremony launching Carpenters' Workbench. Castor, who helped the CDC obtain its grant, said the program would bring "new opportunities for hard-working folks in the Tampa Bay area."
Later that week, the 18 men gathered in a classroom a few blocks from Lake Avenue. They took notes for a safety test and asked questions.
During breaks, Jimmy Wiley, 45, read from a blue hardbound Bible. Wiley was first arrested at 23 for robbing a convenience store of $50 and a carton of Marlboro Lights with a water gun.
"I broke my mother's heart," he said. He has been locked up three more times since, mainly for drug offenses.
Everyone had a story, and a plan. There was David Simon, 52, finishing up probation for burglary. "I hope to get me a dump truck and my own company," he said.
There was Eddie Epps, 46, who grew up in Jackson Heights and rented a room off Nebraska Avenue. He made carpentry sound like fox hunting. "I'm an outdoorsman," he said.
And there was James Bostick, 41, who earned his GED in a drug rehabilitation program. He had worked in nursing homes and kitchens.
A new career beckoned.
"Money's going to be good as well," he said.
Ten dollars an hour, he was thinking.
• • •
After two weeks of skills classes, on-the-job training was about to begin. That was when Able Body's Todd Wiseman told the men how much they would be paid: minimum wage.
The men were incredulous. They had been told they would get $10 an hour for apprenticeship pay. And the program brochure had promised permanent jobs paying a "minimum of $10 per hour."
"You said minimum wage?" repeated Noah Ford, 39.
"Yes, minimum wage," responded Wiseman. "We have to leverage our relationship to get you a job."
The men heard grim explanations: 1.5-million college graduates were unemployed, home construction was in a deep slump nationwide, and 900 job applications sat on the Interstate 275 project foreman's desk.
Earlier in the week, one student had turned down a trucking job. Now, he wasn't sure he had done the right thing.
• • •
The men met in East Tampa at 5 one morning to catch a van to Seffner, where Able Body Labor had an office. Their T-shirts said, "Building opportunities for the future."
But when the van stopped, the men saw a sea of people, all waiting for day jobs.
Day labor? This would be their training?
One man, Tyrone Rodgers, was driven to a site near Falkenburg Road Jail and told to dig.
"My head and ankles and body are so sore right now from digging ditches all day," he said when it was over. "All day in one spot just digging, digging, digging. It had nothing to do with … carpentry."
Dexter Cameron, 38, brought home $37 for the day's work, but knew that wouldn't be enough for him and Dexter Jr., 10.
"I was thinking I was finally getting a chance at a career," Cameron said. "I've had chances at jobs, but I've never had a chance at a career."
Some men were luckier that first day. James Bostick worked as a flagman, and Damon Bellamy, 29, hung drywall at a school. The next day Bellamy did something else, but he didn't mind. He felt he was learning something new.
After that, though, others found that there was only day labor for them, or no work at all.
The CDC heard complaints about the pay and persuaded Able Body Labor to raise it to $8.75, but that wasn't enough to keep some in the program.
"Once we found out this wasn't going the way we wanted it to go, we went out and got jobs," Bostick said. He ended up at Panera Bread, where he said he is "happy and stable," though he doesn't make $10 an hour. As of last week, he said the CDC remains long overdue on a $200 stipend promised for working 60 straight days.
Several men in the program ended up back to jail.
Perry Horton worked briefly as a telemarketer before he was arrested on motor vehicle grand theft, burglary and drug paraphernalia charges. Most of the charges were dropped.
Richard Coburn worked at a McDonald's but violated probation and ended up in state prison.
So did David Simon. Tampa police said he violated probation when he was caught with cocaine and a crack pipe. Another man was jailed briefly on June 6 after Hillsborough deputies said he drove without a valid license.
And Tyrone "Nugget" Rodgers was charged with the armed kidnapping and battery of a 12-year-old girl at a bus stop.
• • •
Toni Watts, the CDC executive officer, expected dropouts.
"We're dealing with ex-offenders," she said. "We're not dealing with CEOs."
There were other problems. Some men had no way to get to work. And they should never have been told they would earn $10 an hour, Watts said.
"We're going to redo that brochure and take that out," she said. "We didn't put together a program where we intended to defraud anyone."
Wiseman of Able Body said construction jobs plummeted after the CDC wrote its grant proposal. Last year, the company couldn't place workers in Channel District construction jobs fast enough. This year, the lofts and apartment sites are still.
"Who saw that coming?" he said.
Jerry Miller of the University of South Florida's Jim Walter Partnership Center evaluates the Carpenters' Workbench program as part of federal grant requirements. The cost to the CDC: $30,000.
Miller said it wasn't unusual that pay and transportation issues emerged. The CDC has a strong record placing people in jobs and may still turn the program around before the three-year grant expires, he said.
Watts said future classes will be smaller and participants will be required to have better transportation access. Trainers will get commitments from construction companies to hire participants before the next round starts, something Able Body didn't have.
"It's a hard task, especially in this environment where the construction industry went from not having enough workers to throwing them out," Miller said.
• • •
After the 18 men finished the program, the CDC gave the Times a report that said that 67 percent were working, many in "permanent" jobs.
But the report appears to exaggerate some cases, calling work assignments permanent when they weren't. For example, the CDC said Luis Ramos and Bryant Everett had permanent jobs, but interviews showed they were still temporary workers.
The CDC counted Andrew Lucas as a success story because he landed a $15-an-hour job as a construction foreman. But Lucas, 43, said he didn't get any help.
"Heel and sole, getting out there on my own," he said.
The CDC said all the men currently holding jobs, including those who found them on their own, are successes because they went through training sessions for resume writing and job interviewing.
Able Body said it helped three men in the first class, including a program dropout, get full-time construction jobs, though one was laid off.
But Dwain Wallace, 36, appears to be the only person who achieved the goals the program laid out. On May 5, after about 100 days on a temporary roster, he earned a permanent, $11-an-hour Wharton Smith construction job.
By then, he had learned to seal chemical pipes and use circular saws and other equipment.
"You can't just expect to come out of class and be a carpenter right out of school," he said.
• • •
Last week, Training U said it will refund the grant money to CDC. It will train future classes for free until a new training partner is found, Wiseman said.
The company wants out.
"We have a 22-year reputation," Wiseman said. "We don't want to lose that. We don't want to lose all of the things in the community we have done over this."
The two elected officials who so heartily welcomed the launch of the Carpenters' Workbench Training Program were concerned after learning of the Times' findings.
Iorio acknowledged the difficulty of employing ex-convicts but said the CDC should figure out what changes are needed. Even $10 an hour may not be enough for the men to re-establish themselves, she said.
Castor said the taxpayer cost was hard to justify if only one man used the program to get a construction job.
"Times are tough out there, but we need better accountability, and we're going to have to show better results," she said.
Times researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Justin George can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3368.