Second chance for young offenders

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The National Restaurant Association Education Foundation (NRAEF) has been awarded a $4.5m grant to help offenders get hospitality jobs. Chris Evans reports on how it will work

The NRAEF has been awarded a whopping $4.5m grant by the US Department of Labor (USDOL) to develop pathways from the justice system to employment for young adults (aged 18 to 24).

This is a strong statement for the hospitality sector worldwide. Giving offenders a second chance is one of the industry’s calling cards.

The grant has allowed the NRAEF to launch the HOPES program (Hospitality Opportunities for People (re)Entering Society) in Boston, Massachusetts; Chicago, Illinois; and the Richmond and Hampton Roads, Virginia area.

Although in its infancy, the NRAEF is already making big plans in partnership with Department of Corrections, community-based organisations and state restaurant associations.

“The idea behind HOPES is to create a continuum of assistance for young people, beginning while they’re still in prison, training them – in partnership with the Correction facilities – in the industry skills and competences they need to enter the workforce,” explains Rob Gifford (pictured), president of the NRAEF.

“Then once they’re released, we’ll connect them directly with community-based organisations that work extensively with the re-entry population to continue their training and make sure they have additional support they need, from resume writing to transportation and housing assistance and legal services to ensure the chances of re-offending are reduced.”

The key is to connect them as quickly as possible with local employers who are ready to hire and who understand some of the unique challenges of working with these guys, says Gifford.

Closing the gap

And it doesn’t stop there. Once they’re employed, the NRAEF will then keep in touch with the employer and individual for 12 months to make sure the life support continues to be there. “Our intention is to close the gap between former offenders who want jobs and industry who have jobs to fill,” adds Gifford. “There are still job gaps and cultural and support gaps. That’s where we come into the equation to benefit the communities we serve.”

With nearly one million unfilled jobs in the US, the restaurant industry is well-suited to support the USDOL’s re-entry initiative and has a long history of being both a first job opportunity for people from all backgrounds and offering second chances to countless others.

Sadly, the Prison Policy Initiative found the unemployment rate for formerly incarcerated people is nearly five times higher than the unemployment rate for the general US population.

“This is why it is key we get into the prisons and help them early as possible,” says Gifford. “We are establishing from industry what skills and competencies they’re after, and then make sure the young offenders obtain these so they’re work ready when they’re released and get placed as quickly as possible.”

Getting the restaurants ready too is equally important. “As part of our Restaurant Ready initiative we work with employers on training and tools for them, so they’re ready to successfully employ ‘opportunity youth’,” assures Gifford.

The NRAEF is currently in the three-month planning period (July 15 to October 15), so that it’s ready to go live with the HOPES program in the Fall, when it will take on graduates.

If successful, the plan is to spread the program to other parts of the US.

Chris Evans