NEW HAVEN, Conn.—In this tough market, if you want a job you have to look the part.
That's especially true, even essential, if as a felon, you have a strike against you already. With that in mind, as the city prepared for its second annual job fair, its ex-offender roundtable group added a "prep rally" to help job-seekers prepare themselves.
"Baggy pants," at least for him, one prospective employer privately acknowledged at the recent job fair at the James Hillhouse High School field house, is a kiss of death for applicants.
Nearly 100 job seekers, most nattily dressed and with resumes and program-completion certificates in hand, turned out for the event. Nearly all had completed a city-sponsored preparatory screening a week before where they got help with resumes and speakers stressed the importance of everything from appearance to eye-contact and a firm handshake.
The problem, said Amy Meek, coordinator of New Haven's Prison Re-entry Initiative, isn't finding ex-offenders looking for work. The city has plenty of them. The challenge is finding prospective employers willing to come and return to the fairs in a job market where there already is a deep pool of candidates without criminal baggage.
"We always say, `You guys represent all people with criminal records. You're not just representing yourselves," said Michael Ben-Elohim, of Strive-New Haven, a social service agency that provides job-readiness training to ex-offenders. At the job fair, Strive had a table set up providing free, donated suits, dress shirts and neckties for people who might need a fashion upgrade.
The 2008 federal Second Chance Act has helped fund about 250 prison re-entry programs around the country aimed at reducing recidivism by helping former prisoners.
The Second Chance Act has provided $198 million nationally so far, officials said. New Haven's program gets about $225,000 a year from a different federal grant, said Amy Meek, who runs the city's program.
While many programs are new and have not been evaluated, research shows the efforts can have promising results, experts say.
Meek said the city seized the idea of the "prep rally" from counterparts in Hartford, who had contacted New Haven earlier this year for ideas about helping the prisoner re-entry population find work.
People without the motivation pretty much weeded themselves out in the process, said LaQuita Harris, an employment specialist with the Columbus House homeless shelter and chair of the re-entry roundtable employment committee. The idea was to ensure job-seekers don't come in unprepared and leave employers unimpressed and unwilling to return in the future.
"What employers tell us over and over again is `I can teach people to do the job but I can't teach them to show up on time with the right attitude'," said Meeks.
Frances Tichey, of New Haven, graduated from Strive's program in July and hasn't found a job yet. She does work through temp agencies and keeps looking.
"It takes a lot of courage to get up every morning and do it again because it's a really hard job market," she said. To keep in the pipeline, she volunteers at the Strive office doing clerical work and checks job listings when she's there.
At the job fair, employers like The Men's Warehouse, TGI Friday's, Yale-New Haven Hospital, DATTCO Bus Co., Popeye's Restaurant and the Elm City Market, among others, set up booths.
"I have to say, I'm very impressed," said Carleen Keith, of the DATTCO Bus Co., which is hiring for school bus and motor coach drivers and diesel mechanics. "Very professional. Very well groomed for the environment. They're asking the right questions."
Kenneth Evans, 20, who got a felony conviction in 2009, recently received a certificate as an electrician from Lincoln Technical Institute. He stood and talked for about 10 minutes with a representative from The Men's Warehouse.
The job search can be discouraging and he doesn't have a preference of what type of work.
"You can't have a preference when you don't have a job," he said.