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Vocational training in prisons can fill industry gaps

A shortage of workers in the welding industry has led some prisons to institute certification programs for inmates to learn applicable technical skills useful in the workplace. 

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    Inmates at the Staton Correctional Facility in Alabama during the Alabama Prison Arts and Education Program in 2011, one of the many educational programs offered to inmates in order to teach applicable skills transferrable to jobs upon release.
    Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
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Vocational training has declined in American high schools as more students plan to attend traditional college programs, and jobs requiring specific technical training, such as welding, are taking the hit. But some prisons are discovering they might just be able to help solve the problem and prepare inmates to integrate back into society upon their release. 

For the past several decades, welding has been on the decline. According to data kept by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of welders decreased by about 210,000, or 37 percent, between 1988 and 2012. Meanwhile, since 2009, manufacturing jobs have increased as a result of growing demand for oil and gas pipeline, reports Bloomberg.

As the average age of welders creeps slowly higher, the prospect of a shortage of skilled welders of working age becomes more and more likely. By 2020, there could be a shortage of close to 300,000 professionals, according to estimates from the American Welding Society. As a result, some prisons are trying to solve the problem by offering inmates the opportunity to earn a welding certificate, making them more hirable upon release.

Georgia’s Walker State Prison is one such prison. “As part of its ongoing prison reform, Georgia decided to give inmates access to heavy tools and blowtorches so they can get a welding certificate,” reported NPR.

At Walker, the program is open to prisoners who are within five years of their release date and who have already completed their GED. Students are given 106 hours of lecture and 140 hours of hands-on lab time over the course of twenty-two weeks. “Participants are introduced to welding technology and skills and earn 13 credit hours from Central Georgia Tech, transferable to any technical college within the Technical College System of Georgia,” reports the Times Free Press.

Walker’s welding program is proving to be successful. Recently released inmates have been offered jobs, and in some cases, received multiple offers.

"We certainly would love to see prisoners successfully re-integrate into the community and into the economy,” Gardner Carrick from the Manufacturing Institute, the Washington, D.C.-based training arm of the National Association of Manufacturers told NPR. “So if welding is a vehicle by which that can happen, then I think that's great to hear.”

Folsom State Prison in California has also seen success with its welding program that began over 20 years ago, and other prisons across the country including Lee State Prison in Georgia and several state prisons in Utah have also instituted welding programs, with inmates finding success upon release.

Beyond just the benefits to the welding industry, prison welding programs are improving inmates' lives and may reduce recidivism. In a study done by RAND corporation, inmates who receive educational or vocational training are 43 percent less likely to become repeat offenders, and 28 percent more likely to land a job upon release.

Furthermore, prison education programs have been shown to be cost effective, “with a $1 investment in prison education reducing incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years post-release,” the RAND study shows.

Other prisons have instituted programs teaching applicable skills from coding to cooking, reducing costs and filling much needed skill gaps in the technical workspace. But more significant might be the impact these programs have on inmates and their transition back into the workforce.

Walker State Prison welding grad Josh Turner sums up the feelings of many inmates, saying, "Thank you for giving us the tools to be returning citizens.”

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