The Biden administration plans to invest $145 million over the next year to support job skills training as well as individualized reentry plans for people who are incarcerated in Bureau of Prison facilities in a first-of-its-kind partnership between the U.S. Justice and Labor departments, the White House said April 25. 

The DOJ/DOL partnership is one component of a multi-agency plan geared toward helping incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people receive training and skills needed to find gainful employment. In materials distributed with the announcement, the White House said, “While there are promising state and local models across the country that incorporate skill-building and reentry planning during incarceration, a comprehensive and inclusive approach is necessary across the country.” 

In addition to the DOL-DOJ partnership, the administration’s plans include expanding access to jobs for formerly incarcerated and marginalized people through Dept. of Transportation and DOL grant programs. At the DOT, these include RAISE and INFRA grants, and the Port Infrastructure Development Program, all existing programs that received an additional boost through the enactment of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. In March, The Labor Dept.  announced  $140 million in grant opportunities for programs that provide skills training and mentorship to disadvantaged youth and young adults. 

Construction unions and industry trade groups, often working in tandem with non-profits and community organizations, have collaborated with the prison system to offer skills training for inmates and disadvantaged populations for decades. The North American Building Trades Union (NABTU) has developed an apprenticeship-readiness curriculum that is used in more than 200 prisons across the U.S. And 30 programs across the Associated Builders and Contractors' 69 chapters work with their state and local prison programs using the National Center for Construction Education and Research's craft curricula. 

While programs exist, stigma persists, and recently released inmates can face significant barriers to employment. According to the White House, more than 600,000 people are released from prison each year, and many of those who are released will have trouble finding a job. A 2018 study found that people who served time in prison had a 27% unemployment rate, the White House said. 

Thomas J Kriger, NABTU’s director of education and research, told ENR that the White House announcements send a strong signal to employers that former inmates can become valuable employees. “This is a viable option for contractors…[Former inmates] have made one mistake, sometimes, but they still can be really good, productive workers.”  He added,  “The grants are going to be great because we are constantly looking for ways” to keep NABTU’s apprentice-readiness programs funded. 

Greg Sizemore, ABC’s vice president of health, safety and environment and workforce development, told ENR that although more funding is always useful, “the real work is going to happen at the zip-code level.”  He said having mentors on the ground who are able to help former inmates navigate the process of starting a new life, including finding employment is crucial. For example, something as simple as not having a standard drivers’ license can make it difficult for someone to be able to get to a project site in a timely fashion, he said. 

Heather Kurtenbach, a business agent and political director for Ironworkers Local 86 in Seattle, told ENR that pre-apprenticeship programs geared toward inmates and those who are marginalized can be life changing.

A former inmate herself, she now helps mentor women prisoners enrolled in Seattle’s Trades Related Apprenticeship Coaching (TRAC), a 16-week program. The coaching and basic skills training they receive through TRAC prepares them well for enrollment in a full pre-apprenticeship program, Kurtenbach said.

When they are being tested and evaluated for acceptance to a pre-apprenticeship program, “these women come out and they already know what they’re doing. They always place first, and they always excel.”