While many of us strained against the stay-at-home orders of the pandemic, and were impatient to get back to normal, there were others who prepared to re-enter the world after a much longer time locked away. People with criminal records face great obstacles in reentry, especially in finding employment. In the St. Louis area, job fairs hosted by the Transformative Workforce Academy have helped to meet this need. The pandemic made in-person gatherings impossible, so this year, they hosted the fair virtually. It proved to be a huge success.
“This year’s job fair was so much better than in person,” said Dr. Jeff Smith, a criminal justice program consultant at Saint Louis University, where the academy began. The virtual format helped alleviate the stress candidates feel as they apply and interview for jobs, and it gave prospective employers a set of candidates pre-screened for their interest and capabilities. At a typical job fair, it takes a while for candidates to find their way to the right company recruiter. “Virtually, we were able to pre-screen the applicants and direct them to companies of interest. We worked with the candidates and created two-minute video presentations, which then were sent to recruiters. It saved time for everyone,” said Jeff.
“The Incarnate Word Foundation’s collaboration has been essential to our programs,” said Jeff. IWF supported the Transformative Workforce Academy with all aspects of the job fair – from recruiting employers to housing assistance for people in transition from prison. That assistance came through grant funding, and even more impactfully, the Foundation’s commitment to collaborative solutions to these challenges.
The Incarnate Word Foundation is a “great model of an agency that lifts up the voices” of people who are marginalized, said Jeff. “Their approach is not to say, ‘Here’s the solution.’ Instead, they ask, ‘How can we collaborate?’” Through that collaboration, the Foundation reached out to agencies they’ve partnered with – such as Employment Connection, Mission STL, the Center for Women in Transition and Connections to Success – to coordinate efforts with the Transformative Workforce Academy to more effectively serve people who have criminal records. “We want people to leave jail and never come back. With the Foundation’s help, we’re addressing many of the challenges they face,” said Jeff.
65 employers participated in the job fair, up by nearly half from last year, according to program manager Lisa Cohn, and the program served over 200 jobseekers. All of them received at least one employer lead at the fair, and nearly all of those who follow up and interview will get a job within two months, based on past results. “I’m kind of thankful that the pandemic forced us to experiment and try something new, that we would never have otherwise tried,” she said. The new virtual format will continue in future years, according to Jeff Smith. “We may never go back to the in-person job fairs – this has been a very positive experience for those seeking employment, and for the companies that hire them. I think we’ve made great progress” in easing the transition, and “we’re extremely grateful to the Incarnate Word Foundation for their generous support.”