Job Training at Times Square Ink
Job Training at Times Square Ink
Roughly 70 percent of those who appear at the Midtown Court are unemployed and many lack the skills to find work. Court planners realized that to reduce recidivism, the Court needed to help offenders obtain skills and find jobs. The question was: How could job training and job placement be incorporated into the functioning of the Court?
In its effort to improve the quality of life in the neighborhoods of Clinton, Chelsea and Times Square, Manhattan's Midtown Community Court holds low-level offenders accountable for their actions while addressing some of the underlying factors, such as drug addiction and homelessness, that fuel offending. One of the most tenacious problems facing the Court, and many of the defendants who appear in it, is unemployment. Roughly 70 percent of those who appear at the Midtown Court are unemployed and many lack the skills to find work. Court planners realized that to reduce recidivism, the Court needed to help offenders obtain skills and find jobs. The question was: How could job training and job placement be incorporated into the functioning of the Court?
The Court formed an advisory board of residents and employment specialists. In looking at the job market in the Midtown area, the board determined that back-office support—the work of mailrooms, copy centers and internal messenger services—was a fast-growing field. Court planners also examined a program already in existence at Midtown: Times Square Express, a bulk mail house staffed by offenders mandated to community service, which offers free services to local non-profits. Offenders sentenced to this facility in the courthouse often reported that they had received good hands-on training while completing their sanctions.
Based on this input the Court, with the assistance of East Harlem Employment Services/Strive—a not-for-profit leader in the workforce development field—and two local office support companies, designed a job-training program. To take advantage of the infrastructure already in place, planners decided that the Court would be an ideal location for the program. Given the limited space available at the courthouse, however, the program had to be small—no more than 25 people could be enrolled at any one time—and any vocational training needed to be limited to office-support services.
Using the basic training structure developed by Strive, the Court customized the program. Because of the nature of office support, a minimum level of literacy and mathematical ability was required even for entry-level positions. In order not to duplicate existing on-site programs, it was decided that adult education would not be included in the curriculum itself. Instead, participants would be encouraged to attend the Court's GED program after training hours. Likewise, drug-treatment services could not feasibly be part of the Court's job-training program: people who were drug addicted and wished to participate in job training could first gain access to drug treatment through the Court, and focus on job training later. In keeping with the Court's emphasis on accountability, defendants who wished to participate in the job-training program would need to complete their mandated community service first.
In the planning phase, program planners from the private sector stressed that job skills required for entry-level positions were not nearly as important as the attitude of potential employees. Individuals who had never had jobs before were less likely to understand the importance of timeliness, proper work attire, respect for coworkers and supervisors, and a good attitude. Yet these things can make the difference between finding a job and keeping a job. Because attitude is such an important factor, planners decided that the service could not be mandated like other social services offered at the Court; participation would need to be voluntary.
The result of this collaborative planning was Times Square Ink, a 10-week job-readiness and training program for careers in office services. Funding for Times Square Ink comes from a variety of private sources, including Strive. Key Features of Times Square Ink include:
Trained Staff: Two full-time employees staff Times Square Ink, but the program draws on the skills and assistance of other Court employees—such as community service, social service and administrative staff—for recruiting, counseling and other functions. The job readiness trainer, whose duties include job development, works with participants to develop proper work habits, builds relationships with potential employers and links graduates to further job-training opportunities. The office services trainer teaches participants the "hard" skills they will need in an office environment. Times Square Ink is a member of the Strive Employment Group, which provides training and technical assistance and sets goals for the program's yearly performance measures. The Times Square Ink trainers are graduates of the Strive Academy and attend regular retreats to sharpen their skills.
Participants: The program is available to low-level ex-offenders and community members over the age of 18, many of whom are recruited after appearing in the Court. Before being accepted into the program, each participant must fill out an application and speak with a counselor who identifies possible barriers to successful completion of the program. Participants must also be drug-free. For those who have come out of a drug treatment program, at least five months of sobriety must be demonstrated. For the first six weeks of the program, trainees are given carfare to and from the courthouse five days a week and are provided with lunch. During their last four weeks, trainees are given a small stipend in place of carfare and lunch.
Job Training: Training at Times Square Ink focuses on three areas: self-assessment, hands-on skills and job-search techniques. In the self-assessment phase, trainees learn how to set goals and identify their individual strengths and weaknesses. In the skills phase, they learn concrete tasks such as mailroom operations, copying, faxing, filing, and basic computer skills. They practice what they are learning as they fulfill Court-generated jobs such as mailings, copying and filing. Towards the end of the program, trainees participate in a one-week internship with a local company or agency. This gives trainees experience in an office environment while building their confidence for future job interviews. Particularly important to future employers is the job-search phase, which teaches participants how to prepare a resume, write cover and thank-you letters, dress appropriately, cooperate with co-workers, and interact with employers.
Placement Services: Times Square Ink actively assists trainees with their job searches and 85 percent of the graduates are placed within a month of program completion. One reason for this success is that each trainee is assigned a Court-based counselor to help resolve outside issues, such as childcare, that may be barriers to successful employment. Counselors continue their involvement even after graduation to ensure that alumni have the support needed to advance in their careers.
Supportive Services: Further training opportunities, such as the GED program and Strive's advanced training, are also available at the Court. An Alumni Association allows graduates to support one another and keep in touch with program staff. The Association also makes suggestions about how to improve the training program and keep it as current as possible.
Partnerships: Times Square Ink has cultivated a variety of partnerships with organizations that enhance the program's effectiveness. The Court is a member of the New York City Employment and Training Coalition, which provides training workshops, as well as a community of providers that can provide strategic advice. The United States Postal Service also provides training workshops for our office services supervisor and for participants themselves. In addition, many non-profit organizations provide supportive services for our clients, including StreetWise Partners (a mentorship and computer training program) and the Legal Action Center (which helps ex-offenders "clean up" their rap sheets). Finally, Times Square Ink has relationships with organizations that provide proper business attire for Times Square Ink participants, including Dress for Success New York and Career Gear.
Business Involvement: Through involvement in the classroom as guest speakers and in the job market as intern hosts or employers, local businesses play an important role in helping the Court train participants and prepare them for the job market. Other businesses donate theater tickets, free dinners and merchandise, such as neckties and scarves, to reward and encourage participants and alumni.
Recruiting: The target population for Times Square Ink is low-level ex-offenders who have completed their mandate at the Court. In Times Square Ink's early stages, the Midtown Court struggled to engage defendants in the program. In the fall of 1999, the Court's newly designated director of recruitment began a coordinated recruitment strategy that included weekly open houses for prospective participants and public graduation ceremonies, attended by defendants before performing their community service. The strategy utilizes all Court staff as recruiters, from Court officers to community service crew supervisors to social service staff; the number of participants in the program has doubled as a result.
Engagement: Forty percent of those who enroll in the program drop out before graduation. The program sets rules and guidelines that simulate a typical work environment. But the rules present a difficulty for some participants. For example, the program requires participants to arrive at 9:00 am every morning and wear proper work attire (e.g., shirts and ties for men). Participants must meet all program requirements in order to advance through the three modules, and then on to graduation. Disciplinary panels are convened for trainees whose behavior is inappropriate and punishments range from class presentations about why the behavior is inconsistent with the work environment to termination from the program.
Funding: The initial business plan contemplated a "social venture:" a self-sustaining copy shop that would give participants on-the-job experience while generating operating funds for the initiative. This idea, which was developed with the help of two large office support companies, was abandoned within a year. The cost (in management energy as well as financially) of running a start-up business was prohibitively high, and distracted staff from the more important task of training clients. Times Square Ink closed the copy shop, but simultaneously expanded its scope to the full range of office-support services. Since then, it has been able to maintain its high standards of training and continue to attract top-notch employers for its graduates while raising funds from private foundations to offset the income that was to have come in through the copy business.
Job Retention: Times Square Ink graduates, many of whom have never held a job, need extra support to retain their jobs and move ahead in their careers. Counselors reach out to graduates every few months to find how they are doing and offer continuing services. The program began an Alumni Association in the fall of 2000 to help improve job retention, and its activities have become an important tool for staying in touch with graduates—sharing their successes, helping to brainstorm strategies for promotion, and working to get them re-employed if they should lose their jobs.
From 1997, when the program began, through the end of 2000, over 180 people graduated from the program and found employment with companies such as Pitney-Bowes, Archer Management, IKON Office Solutions, Kinko's, Velocity Express and area law firms. The average starting wage is $6.70/hour. The program has an 85 percent placement rate, and 73 percent of graduates are still working after one year.