Like most areas of the country, Kansas City is feeling the labor crunch. However, a new program is helping address the issue while giving a vulnerable group of locals a new lease on life.

Creating a better community, person by person

Construct KC is a pilot program that trains former inmates for skilled trades. Not only is the program helping local construction companies fill jobs, but it’s also building up the local community, says Courtney Reyes, government affairs and workforce development manager at the Home Builders Association (HBA) of Greater Kansas City.

“Our goal is to build people up so that we can feed into the workforce and make the community a better place,” says Reyes. “There are a couple of different goals we’re approaching.”

The grant-funded program is a partnership of the HBA of Greater Kansas City, the Associated Builders and Contractors Heart of America chapter, and Workforce Partnership, which applied for the $200,000 grant from the state of Kansas.

Who qualifies

Construct KC works with the Johnson County Department of Corrections Adult Residential Center in Kansas to identify inmates who may be interested in a construction career and would be a good fit for the program.

“Our biggest goal is to make sure that these placements are fairly permanent. We want them to be successful.” – Courtney Reyes, HBA of Greater Kansas City

“We have to make sure that the [former inmates] have an interest,” Reyes says. “Our biggest goal is to make sure that these placements are fairly permanent because we want them to be successful.”

Once screened, program participants go through a six-week training course that includes both classroom and hands-on learning.

Becoming qualified

Graduates come out of the program certified with 10 hours of Occupational Safety and Health Administration training as well as certification from the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER) in Carpentry Level 1.

Afterwards, participants have six weeks of on-the-job training with an employer. The grant pays up to 50 percent of the wages for the employee during that time. Trainees also get tools and boots for their first day on the job.

Since Construct KC’s launch in March, 16 people have passed through the program, seven of which were women—a figure Reyes calls “amazing.”

When people feel like they have a purpose, they’re less likely to re-offend.

In a 2017 workforce study by the HBA of Greater Kansas City, 75 percent of respondents rated the labor shortage as high to very high. Fifty-seven percent of respondents said there was a serious shortage of carpentry labor, a deficit which inspired Construct KC to focus initially on carpentry training.

Worker shortage plus community in need

While one of the major goals of Construct KC is to address the construction workforce shortage, Reyes says it goes much deeper.

“When people start forming relationships in the community, when they feel like they have a purpose, they’re less likely to re-offend. We’re able to place them back into the workforce so they can do some good and contribute to their community,” she says. “It’s so important for them to have this second chance.”

Nationwide, more than 10,000 individuals are released from federal and state prison every week in the U.S., according to the Department of Justice. Approximately two-thirds are rearrested within three years. Research continues to show that workforce training and employment can dramatically reduce the rate of re-offense.

On their feet—and into boots

Higher-skilled but accessible jobs like construction and manufacturing are linked specifically to reductions in recidivism. A study of industry hiring rates and ex-offenders in California, for example, found that when more individuals are being brought on at construction firms, a 2.2 percent drop in the number of inmates returning to prison within a year was also seen.

“We’re helping with the skilled labor shortage,” Reyes says. “We’re also alleviating the burden on the prison system by providing an opportunity for ex-prisoners to get trained so that they don’t re-offend. We want to get them out into the construction industry and make the community a better place.”v

Reyes admits that creating partnerships and building relationships with local business owners and community stakeholders has been vital to Construct KC’s success.

“We want to build the program and let it grow and get more participants,” she says. “We’re also looking to potentially expand it into other areas of the Midwest and the country.”

Right now, Reyes says program leaders are taking the rest of 2018 to evaluate and are gearing up for the next group in spring 2019.