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New vocational center at Hillsborough jail aims to give inmates job skills

The 10,000 square-foot center at the Falkenburg Road jail teaches welding, carpentry and automotive repair, with more courses on the way.
A patrol car sits on a lift at the new Vocational Training Center at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's Falkenburg Road jail complex on Monday. The center offers programs in welding, carpentry, automative repair and forklift operation to give inmates skills to find job when they're released. More programs will be added soon, officials said. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

TAMPA — In a Tampa Bay region enjoying a building boom, welders are in short supply.

“Construction is doing well, so there’s definitely a need," said Keven Barber, business manager for the Iron Workers Local 397 in Tampa. “A big need.”

Employers looking for workers with welding skills will soon have another potential pipeline of applicants.

The Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s new Vocational Training Center aims to give county jail inmates marketable job skills and create what Sheriff Chad Chronister called a “pathway to employment” after their release.

The center at the Falkenburg Road Jail complex is opening this month with four programs — welding, carpentry, forklift operation and basic automotive repair — and will soon offer courses in plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Inmates will receive a completion certificate and get help lining up a job as their release date nears.

“Everyone deserves a second change at a brighter future and today with the opening of this vocational training center those futures start now,” Chronister said at a news conference Monday in the cavernous building that houses the center.

Brand new welding hoods and other tools sit ready for the first class at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's new Vocational Training Center at the Falkenburg Road jail complex in Tampa. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The center is the latest addition to what Chronister calls a holistic approach to reducing the recidivism rate in the county by offering inmates resources to improve their lives.

The Sheriff’s Office has expanded its mental health and addiction treatment care for inmates, creating a housing unit dedicated to inmates in mental health crisis and a certified six-week intensive drug treatment program. There are now more than 40 educational programs including GED and life skills. A “veterans resurgence” program, launched last summer and housed in a special unit in the jail, offers a range of services and links inmates to the Veterans Administration and other resources to help them transition out of jail.

“We’re not going to break the cycle of recidivism if we don’t take the necessary steps,” Chronister said.

Related: Program aims to keep military veterans from returning to Hillsborough jail

The new vocational programs are available to inmates who are currently serving a sentence in the jail. That means there is a large pool for the 12 spots in new each vocational course: sentenced inmates account for about 60 percent of the roughly 3,000 people currently in the jail system, according to the Sheriff’s Office. County jail sentences can be as long as 364 days, a long time to be out of the job market.

Chronister said he came up with the idea for the vocational center about two years ago and called the end result a “cutting-edge” facility for a county jail in Florida.

Sheriff Chad Chronister speaks at the opening of the new vocational center on Monday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The new $1 million, 10,000 square-foot-vocational center, with its soaring ceilings and open floor plan, has the feeling of an airplane hangar.

In one corner on Monday, a patrol car sat suspended on a lift several feet above the ground near tire changing and balancing machines.

In the area dedicated to the welding program, brand-new welding hoods sat on shelves near ventilated stations where participants can practice stick, wire and gas tungsten welding. Participants who complete the program get to keep the hoods and other tools in their welding kits when they leave the jail.

Inmates in the new center's welding program will practice their new skills at these state-of-the-art ventilated stations. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

The programs will be taught by instructors from the Hillsborough County School District and its technical colleges. Inmates will leave with a completion certificate and Sheriff’s Office case managers will work with CareerSource Tampa Bay and to find employers who can provide job opportunities.

The cost to build and operate the center is covered by the Sheriff’s Office jail commissary canteen fund, not public tax dollars, Chronister said.

“So what you see here today, yes, it could be considered expensive, but this is inmates helping inmates,” he said.

Barber, the Iron Workers business manager, was one of the union representatives on hand for the opening Monday and came away impressed. He said inmates who complete the program would have a head start when they sign up for the union’s four-year apprenticeship and would likely start at a higher hourly wage.

“I think it’s a great thing for the community and plus it gives inmates a second chance,” Barber said.

A forklift to be used to train inmates on how to operate the machines sits in the new vocational center on Monday. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]