When former state Senator Jeff Smith was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, he found job searching difficult. Even though he had a house to come home to, family support, a prestigious network, a PHD and white skin, he had a rough time finding employment. He now does consulting work for St. Louis University’s Office of Mission and Identity, and that involves helping plan SLU’s Second Chance Job Fair.
“In every way, I was advantaged coming out of prison compared to almost everybody in this country, and I had a really hard time finding a decent job,” Smith said.
St. Louis is responsible for the nation’s largest virtual Second Chance Job Fair hosted by SLU’s Transformative Workforce Academy. On Thursday, July 9, employers will tune into a webinar screening of prerecorded jobseeker videos. Lisa Cohn, the woman at SLU who is running the fair's operations, came up with an innovative concept.
“It’s been heartbreaking, but also so beautiful to hear their stories in these videos, and it’s just made me really passionate about wanting to see them get jobs,” Cohn said.
Dozens of employers will watch the short two-minute-videos in addition to receiving more information about the benefits of Second Chance Employment before choosing which applicants they'd like to meet with after the fair.
The fair takes place from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., and in between videos Cohn and colleagues will answer frequently asked questions about Second Chance employment.
“We’re doing a lot of work to train employers, help them understand the population a little better to help them understand trauma,” Smith said.
This is the third year SLU is hosting the Second Chance Job Fair. The past two years have proven successful with 77 employers and 1,000 job seekers. Due to the coronavirus, the program had to adapt to a virtual arena rather than Chaifetz, similar to a flipped classroom.
“These people coming out of prison end up being some of the employers’ best workers because of that work ethic and because they add something positive to the workplace culture,” Cohn said.
Each job seeker gets two minutes to talk about their work-related experience, skills and how they’ve overcome adversity. They get to “sell themselves” as jobseeker Larissa Brady put it.
“Don’t give up,” Brady said. “Keep going and find something out there that suits you. Find a career, not just a job. There’s a difference.”
Brady’s construction experience began two weeks after she was released from prison in September of 2018. David Brainerd of Brainerd Construction hired her, showing what it looks like to give an ex-felon a second chance.
Brady currently works on rental properties part-time with her uncle. She is still searching for something more consistent and stable.
“People need to stay motivated,” Brady said. “Don’t let their past bring them down. I’ve kind of tried to overcome that hurdle myself. It stopped me a couple times. It broke me down a little bit until David, my old boss, gave me that chance and really put faith and effort into me.”
Her federal parole officer told her that there would be some major construction companies a part of the job fair. Brady has aspirations of expanding her knowledge and becoming a master at drywall, and she believes that employers at the job fair can assist her with that.
“It brings those opportunities to light for us and also gives us motivation because when you have a record, you feel like you have ‘felon’ stamped on the front of your forehead,” Brady said.
Cohn and her coworkers were skeptical about having a virtual job fair due to the inequality of access to a virtual space for jobseekers. By having them made pre-recorded, they were able to create them on their phone or any device and send them beforehand.
“We didn’t want our jobseekers to be disadvantaged because of the new format, especially considering that there’s varying levels of digital literacy coming out of prison,” Cohn said.
Employment is one of the main factors reducing the likelihood of recidivism. Finding a job with a criminal record can be strenuous and discouraging. The most recent Missouri Department of Corrections recidivism rate is 43.9% for all releases. The Sentencing Project reported that more than 60 percent of formerly incarcerated individuals are unemployed one year after being released.
“I think you see the kind of ingenuity and problem-solving mentality that people who are behind bars bring to the table once they're free,” Smith said. “And if we just write all those folks off it is not going to end well for the city. We got to find ways to include them, bring them into the mainstream economy.”
More employers are welcome.
“There’s lots of concrete and intangible community benefits of Second Chance employment for employers, and we’re working to try and help them understand that and chip in and be part of the solution,” Smith said.
If you are an employer or job seeker, you can sign up for the job fair at https://tinyurl.com/SLU-2ndChance.