July 29, 2014

Job Training

The 'Right Direction'

A job-training program for troubled youths gives teens and builders a boost.

Bridget McCrea | 7/1/2005
Seven years ago, an Avon Park youth detention facility decided to teach troubled teens home-building skills in order to make them productive citizens. Today, the program is a godsend for builders trying to keep pace in a booming construction market made busier by last year's four hurricanes.

The Avon Park Youth Academy is a 200-bed residential detention center operated by the Home Builders Institute (the workforce development arm of the National Association of Home Builders) and by Richmond, Va.-based Securicor New Century. Run by Securicor and funded by the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice, the 35-acre facility operates at a former Air Force barracks near an active bombing range and the 1,500-bed Avon Park Correctional Institute.

Offenders ages 16 to 18 years old who are classified as a moderate risk to public safety complete 640 hours of vocational training and 200 hours of on-the-job training. The program also features trades like culinary arts, desktop publishing and horticulture. The construction track was started in 1998.

Instructor Ronnie Henderson teaches Avon Park youths construction skills.

To select program participants, Pete Zeegers, facility manager, looks at a teen's criminal history and interests. During training, students help maintain the facility, which graduates 25 to 35 students every six weeks and recently received the International Corrections and Prisons Association award for overcoming barriers to employment for
juvenile offenders.

Last year, the academy placed 85% of the teens who completed the program at an average wage of $8.58 an hour. It has become an established source of workers for builders in the region. "We've used Avon Park graduates for seven years with good results," says Tom Wirth, owner of 26-employee Marlin Marble Co. in Lake Placid.

Wirth says the job candidates are more committed than those garnered through classified ads. "They know this is the opportunity to do something better."

Graduates are benefiting from a big demand for construction workers. The Florida Agency for Workforce Innovation ranks construction third among industries expected to gain the most jobs and projects 2.63% growth by 2012, to 543,837 total jobs statewide.

Zeegers says he works with a group of "repeat customers" who know what they're getting into when they hire his grads. "You can't control these kids 100%," says Zeegers. "All you can do is give them the tools and push them in the right direction."

So far, says Zeegers, the program is working. He says only 14% of graduates get into trouble again within one year of release, compared with 39% in Florida's overall juvenile justice system.

Harry Shorstein, state attorney in Jacksonville, runs a similar program for troubled youths. He says getting employers to hire justice system workers "ain't always easy, but every juvenile we can turn around has a monumental impact on crime prevention."

Tags: Southwest, Business Services

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