Via St. Pete Catalyst

The Florida Dream Center’s Work Readiness Training program is helping participants add a new tool to their toolbox of skills: Carpentry.

The Florida Dream Center is a nonprofit that takes resources and aid into at-risk communities through a robust roster of programs, including its Work Readiness Training initiative. The program was developed in late 2017 and implemented in 2018 to enhance basic introductory skills for people who traditionally struggle with finding employment. 

The program initially focused on forklift certification and soft skills training but has recently expanded to offer accreditation by the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER). This accreditation will enable the organization to train and certify individuals in Core Construction and Carpentry level 1, providing valuable skills and credentials for those seeking employment in the construction industry.

Gary Webb, Director of Workforce Development for the Florida Dream Center, said most of the program participants are ex-offenders, currently incarcerated, in addiction recovery programs or experiencing homelessness.

“A lot of our clients are coming from a work release center at the Department of Corrections right now, so they’re in the last year of their sentence, but they’re allowed to work and train,” Webb said. “That gives them the opportunity to have a head start; they’ve got a job, they’ve been able to build a support system and they’ve got some money, so they have an actual opportunity to succeed when they get out.”

The Florida Dream Center is now a candidate for accreditation by the National Center for Construction Education & Research (NCCER), enabling the organization to train and certify individuals in Core Construction and Carpentry level 1. Leaders at the nonprofit hope to add a plumbing certification soon.

The Workforce Readiness Training initiative is funded with grant support from United Way Suncoast and by donations to the Florida Dream Center. Webb said while the program helps individuals learn skills, earn certificates and prepare for job opportunities, it also builds confidence and instills hope in those who’ve faced challenging life situations.

“For a lot of our clients, we have to start with a very simple part of reminding them that they have value. Especially if they’ve been incarcerated, living on the streets or battling addiction. They’ve had years where they’ve just been beaten down and forget who they are,” Webb said. “Then we go from there into some actual training. Just because someone’s down on their luck doesn’t mean they’re not capable of learning or performing. They are everything they were before they hit those challenges, and it’s just a matter of helping them get back on their feet.”

Webb said about 60 to 80 participants complete the program each year. One of the many people the Dream Center is giving a hand up to is Brandon Parker, a lifelong Pinellas County resident who’s been incarcerated for the past decade. He’s working to earn multiple certifications to help him land a well-paying job upon his release later this year. 

“I wanted to jump on this because it’s a good opportunity to help me get a better, secure job. It’s going to really help me have an advantage when I get out, so I just thought I should put the effort in and really get something out of it while I can I have this opportunity,” Parker said.

“It’s hard because you’ve already got some marks against you, being in prison, so we actually try harder than anyone else because we have to show that we’ve made changes. Especially for the guys who’ve been away and haven’t had the chance to take care of their families, this helps support them right from the rip and be better paid doing it, too.”

Parker added that for inmates who’ve lost touch with family and friends, having a career waiting for them after incarceration helps reduce recidivism and makes reintegrating back into the community easier. For those who are still supported by their loved ones, taking part in the program shows their dedication to turning over a new leaf upon release.

Brandon Parker said the Florida Dream Center’s Work Readiness Training program is helping him earn multiple certifications and build character skills: “They really invest their time and care about helping us succeed.”

“You have no idea how proud our families are of us,” said Parker. “It actually helps the conversation because in prison, you don’t have much to talk about. When we’re out here getting these certifications, learning so much and sharing it with them on the phone, it raises their spirits and their attitude, just to know we’re doing something good and pretty soon, we’re going to be able to apply those things when we get released.”

Organizations like Boley Veteran Services, Pinellas Ex-offender Re-entry Coalition, Second Chance and the Pinellas County Jail have been instrumental partners in supporting the Florida Dream Center’s Work Readiness Training. Webb said it’s a win for all involved, including companies that have hired graduates of the program and seen improved staff retention rates.

“Employers are struggling to stay staffed. It doesn’t matter what industry you’re talking about,” said Webb. “We’ve got employers who were afraid at first, but now they’re seeing the kind of employees they are getting from our program; they’re getting employees that are grateful and that are loyal, and their retention value is going up considerably from where it was when they were hiring from the general public.”

According to the Florida Department of Corrections, it cost $77.53 per day to house an inmate in 2022. By helping people secure permanent job placement, this program is reducing recidivism, avoiding homelessness and fostering self-sufficiency; a net positive for participants, employers, taxpayers and the community at large.

“You’re taking people who are struggling on the street, and sometimes, they have to do whatever they can to survive. We’re giving them opportunities to succeed, and many of them are just looking for that; an opportunity,” Webb said.

“We’ve got a segment of the population that’s being ignored as if they’re unemployable. That’s really what we want to change. We want to give these folks a real opportunity, and they’re worth it. When we build them up, we all rise.”

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