Ex-cons clog Cleveland's unemployment lines. And it's about to get worse

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Ex-cons clog Cleveland's unemployment lines. And it's about to get worse

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Like Michael Brown, about 7 out of 10 ex-offenders are African American, and their job prospects are even worse than their white counterparts. An analysis by the Economic Policy Institute found that, in Greater Cleveland, the average unemployment rate among blacks is 18.1 percent — nearly twice the overall average for the region. Not surprisingly, black ex-offenders fight prejudices against race as well as their criminal histories. Studies by Devah Pager, a sociologist from the University of Minnesota, have repeatedly found that white male ex-cons who are job hunting earn more second interviews than African American males who have no criminal record. Black males with a record get the least interest.

Stella Shepard is a job trainer with Networks 4 Success, a four-week "employment readiness" program for ex-convicts that's part of a workforce development nonprofit called Towards Employment. To the 20 unemployed hopefuls awaiting instructions in a conference room at Playhouse Square on this day, Shepard is more like a drill sergeant.

She's leading an exercise to reveal personality traits deemed necessary for specific jobs. The group has already spent half an hour brainstorming, and now they've set about tacking large sheets of chart paper on the walls around the room at Shepard's command.

She groups the class by potential occupations: Maintenance workers are ordered to cluster in front of one sheet, warehouse and shipping clerks by another. The business analyst stands alone.

"Come down an inch and a half, and draw a line from side to side," she says, barking directions for each group to draw a large chart on their paper. "Be decisive. That's a good skill.

"On top of the line, write the job field in large letters. I need to see that from wherever I am."

Shepard's brusque manner is intended to help her charges develop "soft skills," like following directions and having thick skin. They'll need both to get and keep a job.

When it comes to having a criminal history, everyone in the room rows the same boat. When it comes to the specific types of work each is suited for, though, the commonality fades. Some of them have never been employed legitimately, while others have only barely worked. Some had steady jobs after leaving prison or jail, but have since gotten laid off along with countless others in the local workforce. Now they're learning how much the world changed when they were punching a clock or biding time behind bars. While they weren't looking, online job applications and career sites have replaced newspaper want ads and paper applications.

Participation in Networks 4 Success is voluntary. And to each one of them here, Shepard's drills are no game. So everyone listens and follows directions precisely, each of them aware that their future depends on it. And with their future, so goes the future of Cuyahoga County and Cleveland.

According to the latest Census figures, one in three Cleveland families lives in poverty. As the region finds itself in the throes of reinvention, from withering industrial center to technology and health-care hub, its attempts to improve its fortunes are tied to the ability of ex-offenders to find meaningful work here. But its efforts may be stymied if people like Michael Brown, and the thousands of newly returned ex-cons less qualified than he is, end up gazing at jobs they can't — or get no chance to — fill.

The city's recent response has been to remove the question about past felonies from its job applications, a change advocated by the National Employment Law Project, a New York nonprofit that advocates for low-wage workers. Cleveland is now one of just 30 cities, counties, or states across the country that has eliminated the question, which opponents claim encourages hiring bias.

"We are quite concerned about the economic well being of people that have a criminal background, and how they seamlessly come back into our community is a priority for this administration," says Natoya Walker Minor, chief of public affairs for Cleveland. "I think it's a priority for this region."

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