A shortage of skilled laborers in the craft of welding is poised to seriously hinder America’s production capacity in the coming years. With education policies emphasizing that all students should pursue “traditional” college upon high school graduation, there’s been a serious drop in the number of individuals pursuing vocational training in the last decade or so. But industrial demands for skilled workers has grown, and those needs aren’t being met. Several states are setting themselves up for success by recognizing the capacity of prison populations to help stem that shortage once released.
The same RAND study that revealed the importance of prison education to reducing recidivism also found that individuals who received vocational training were “28% more likely to obtain post-release employment.” With NPR reporting a possible shortfall of 300,000 welders over the coming decade, a welding certificate could create a world of opportunities for inmates. Folsom Prison in California has been running a hugely successful welding program for over 20 years, but for some reason it’s only recently that other states have recognized its potential.
Just as it is with any college graduate, one of the most serious barriers former inmates face upon re-entry is a lack of available positions in their field. This challenge is compounded for ex-inmates who may face the “box” barrier of having to reveal past convictions on their primary job application programs. This past week Oklahoma graduated its first class of welders in an integrative program that also helps eliminate that issue by forging partnerships with community organizations and employers in the region. The program has also taken things a step further by including financial literacy components into their courses. This type of holistic approach to education can act as a template for how prison education can work towards achieving social and economic goals for everyone involved.
Unsurprisingly, for so many of these programs, funding is a major hurdle. Oklahoma’s program was a collaborative effort with non-profits, but a large chunk of its funding came from the Department of Labour, and that funding is set to end next year. A promising welding program in Alabama is also at risk, with looming funding cuts set to further cripple a prison system already nearly 200% over capacity.
In the past, certain conservative pundits have railed against technical training (and every other kind of education) for prisoners—making unfounded claims that giving prisoners access to heavy machinery or equipment poses a danger to public safety. But when their states face shortages and public outcry because of stalled infrastructure works, they’ll have only themselves to blame. Because inside each prison’s walls are individuals ready, willing, and eager to help.