Not long ago, Paul Anselmo got a phone call.
It was a former student, one of the many Mr. Anselmo has met over the past 14 years heading New Century Careers, a technical institute. Most of his graduates go on to manufacturing and machine shop jobs; many are successful. This man was no different.
But this former pupil, Mr. Anselmo recalled, had started from behind: He had spent time in prison.
"He said, 'You don't remember this, but I was a felon prior to coming in,' " Mr. Anselmo said. " 'Now I'm running a department at my company.' It's a very rewarding thing that we do."
Hoping this barbed wire-to-boss success story will be just one among many, Allegheny County is launching a technical training program at the county jail, the first time the county has brought a classroom to the incarcerated.
Thanks to a $600,000 U.S. Department of Justice grant, the county will be able to enroll 100 inmates a year. They will begin classes a year or so before leaving jail and will follow up with additional schooling once they're released, eventually qualifying for jobs in the energy industry or related fields.
Foundations likely will pick up part of the program's cost in the future, granting the initiative greater funding as it grows more successful.
"It is exciting to once again see Allegheny County rewarded for its efforts to reduce recidivism," County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said in a statement. "It was funding from the Department of Justice that helped establish our successful re-entry program, and now this additional funding is an important reinvestment in that program, as those aided will have the skills they need to find decent employment after incarceration."
"Career Tech" joins a patchwork of other social programs connected through Jail Collaborative, an inter-departmental initiative that aims to reduce recidivism and better prepare inmates for life on the outside.
For Allegheny County Jail Deputy Warden LaToya Warren, it was a natural fit.
"We're trying to build off prior successes with our re-entry program," she said. "We want to provide them with a program that gives them some skills that are transferable in the workforce."
Those skills will find a home in the energy industry, she hopes. Potential jobs after the program include energy engineering technician and industrial maintenance technician. Organizers believe graduates should make good wages.
New Century Careers is one of several companies providing classes, with the Community College of Allegheny County, the A. Philip Randolph Institute and the Trade Institute of Pittsburgh picking up the rest of the load.
Of course, teaching from jail can be a challenge. Mr. Anselmo said classes inside the jail will focus on math and diagramming, with some limited hands-on work. It won't be until an inmate's release that they begin working with heavier equipment.
He knows every student won't be a success story. But he thinks many will be, perhaps enough to guarantee him another phone call in a few years -- and another good story.
"It's not perfect. Not everyone works out," Mr. Anselmo said. "But I have to tell you: Sometimes it's very difficult to tell who has been previously incarcerated or not. We've had some great individuals come through."
Andrew McGill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1497. First Published October 9, 2013 8:02 PM