At the final session of Ready, Set, Work! David Reali has good news for the men in his program: There's a roofing company in Albany that's willing to hire former prisoners, and it pays between $13 and $15 an hour.
"The barrier might be transportation," says Reali, who runs the RSW! program based at The Center for Community Justice, a Schenectady nonprofit organization with a mission of easing the burden on local jails and courts through programs that assist ex-prisoners, children in foster care and others. "You need your own transportation."
For Rey, an ex-offender who got out of prison in June, the job might be a good opportunity.
He's worked construction before and, at 27, he's young and able. He's found part-time work washing dishes at a restaurant. But he wants a full-time job.
"I'm trying to find something bigger," Rey told me, after Reali presented him with a certificate for completing the five-week Ready, Set, Work! program. "It feels good to be able to provide something for my own self. [A job] can provide everything for me. Without a job, I cannot help my mom with rent. I cannot really do much."
Ready, Set, Work! is a 20-hour course that aims to give men and women fresh out of prison the skills and resources they need to obtain and retain jobs. There are RSW! programs throughout the state; I sat in on the program in Schenectady, which was established in 2014.
What I observed was a well-run, engaging program with a worthy goal: reducing the likelihood that ex-prisoners will return to prison through employment.
One of the best things about RSW! is how practical it is.
Among other things, classes focus on filling out job applications, writing resumes, employer expectations and networking. The course concludes at the Schenectady County One Stop Center on Broadway, where job openings are posted and free computers are available to job seekers.
At one RSW! session, a representative from Home Depot conducted mock job interviews in which she specifically probed the men about their backgrounds, giving everyone in the course an opportunity to practice what Reali calls their "conviction speech." Jimmy and Rey both told me that the mock interview was the most useful part of Ready, Set, Work!
"It taught me how to talk in the interview," says Rey, who returned home after three-and-a-half years in prison. "It taught me how big details can be made little, and how little details can be made big."
It isn't easy for ex-offenders to find employment, but it isn't as difficult as one might think, either.
In fact, the biggest barrier, according to Reali, is convincing ex-offenders they can find a job despite having a felony conviction. "There are external barriers, but the internal barriers are big," he said. "I take personal pleasure and pride in giving them the skills they need to find jobs."
Reali told me that there are a handful of local companies, such as Home Depot and the Price Chopper warehouse, that will hire ex-offenders directly from his program, and that he's hoping to find more who are willing to do so. I hope he does — having a larger pool of employers to which he can refer ex-offenders will make it easier for former prisoners to readjust to life outside prison.
The men who attend RSW! don't want to return to prison, but some seem more serious about fulfilling the course requirements and finding a job than others. By the end of the course, I know whom I would be willing to hire if I ran, say, a warehouse, and which applicants I might be a little more wary of.
One clue is attendance.
At least one man dropped out of the course after he found a job, but others missed classes and offered little in the way of explanation. The final class drew just Rey and Jimmy, a steep drop off from the half-dozen or so men I observed at one of the earlier sessions.
"I test them with the resume," Reali told me. "If they don't get it done, I know they're not serious."
Jimmy and Rey both strike me as serious, although Jimmy will likely have a harder time than most finding a job.
He's 55 — a tough age to find yourself unemployed even without a criminal background — and was in prison for 14 years. (Both men spoke to me under the condition that I withhold their last names and the exact natures of their crimes.) During the final RSW! session, Jimmy told me he's applied for more than 50 jobs and his manner suggests that he's desperate to find one.
"In order to survive, I've got to find a job," says Jimmy, who has experience working for the U.S. Postal Service sorting packages. "A job can provide my everything."
Reali assures Jimmy that he's going to do everything he can to help him.
"Because of the way you participated in class and me seeing the person you are — I'm willing to go to bat for you," he says. He includes Rey in his next statement: "I feel comfortable putting my name on the line for you guys."
I'll admit, it can be a bit jarring to learn why people went to prison. Reconciling an ex-offender's troubling crime with the amiable, hard-working and sincere person at the Ready, Set, Work! classes can be difficult.
But this doesn't mean we should shun such people, or deny them jobs.
When ex-offenders are able to support themselves, we all benefit.
Ready, Set, Work! helps a marginalized population rebuild their lives, and deserves praise for doing so.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper's.