How many well-intentioned government schemes are wrecked by mismanagement before officials get their act together? That question is at the heart of St. Petersburg Times’ staff writer Justin George's account of a federal employment grant to an east Tampa nonprofit. The grant was supposed help ex-cons learn the construction trade and find steady work, but it became a jobs bill to everybody except the former inmates trying to reintegrate into society.
The program, financed by a $500,000 federal grant and run by the Corporation to Develop Communities in east Tampa, was to be a fresh start. Men coming out of jail were to spend two weeks in the classroom followed by another two weeks of on-the-job training. The Carpenters' Workbench Training Program taught ex-offenders how to frame doors and reinforce trenches. Most important, it offered participants the hope of independent living and a life away from crime, by promising full-time work in jobs that paid at least $10 an hour. Yet for most, it didn't happen.
Of the 18 who emerged from the class in January, just one man landed a permanent, full-time construction job. Others found lower-paying work on their own. Four went back to jail or prison. The people in charge blamed a souring economy and problems with transportation and getting ex-inmates to work. That sounds like an excuse. The real estate market has been in trouble for years. The CDC should have prepared by lining up work beforehand and arranging transportation to the job sites. The trainees also were also offered minimum-wage pay, not $10-an-hour jobs. Clearly the nonprofit was more focused on securing the grant than on delivering what were modest prom ises.
Toni Watts, who runs the CDC, said future classes will be smaller and trainees will be required to provide for their own transportation. The agency needs to give participants the support they need; the goal here is not only for ex-cons to get a job but to keep it. The CDC also said it would get hiring commitments from contractors before the next round of training. Again, those jobs can disappear overnight in this depressed construction market.
The CDC needs to train ex-offenders to deal with the changing job picture. The agency also needs to be more accountable. U.S. Rep. Kathy Castor, D-Tampa, who helped the CDC obtain its grant, should reassure the community that the program, which has a three-year term, is a worthy use of taxpayer money.