ST. GABRIEL, LA - Want to interview trained technicians? If you're in Louisiana, the opportunity is there for you. If not, you may want to help your state's Department of Labor rethink its attitude.

In Louisiana, contractors in construction trades need help as desperately as you do. Louisiana , however, took a closer look. Where are the manpower shortages? Whom can we train to fill those jobs?

In fairness, Louisiana isn't the only state that has answered these questions. California, Massachusetts, New Jersey, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and perhaps others have as well.

Someone in each of those states said, in effect: "We have a large pool of potentially employable young men. Problem is, they're in jails, prisons, and correctional centers. Let's get them trained, at least for entry-level jobs."

Louisiana's Department of Labor and Corrections (LDOL) added something extra: "Once we train them, let's hold a job fair!"

If you think hordes of contractors turned out to interview inmates, even well-behaved guys, even guys with nonviolent offenses on their records, you'd be wrong. But a few employers did show up.

They interviewed soon-to-be-released inmates, got applications filled out, and asked a few prospects to drop by after their release. Some got hired and did well on the job. Word got around. Next job fair, a couple more contractors showed up.

It's a slow process, but it's apparently working. Contractors who have hired former inmates experienced positive outcomes. In fact, only 5% of those hired through the job fair have returned to prison.

Into this scenario steps Ronnie Robert (pronounced RoBEAR), president of Robert Refrigeration Service, Inc., New Orleans. He attended a recent job fair at Hunt Correctional Center here. A young man he interviewed there looks promising.

Like many contractors, Robert is tired of turning business away because all his technicians are tied up. What does he say when an old lady calls in mid-August with a 105oF heat index? Or when a long-time customer calls, needing immediate service?

After being seen on NBC's evening news coverage of the fair, he was asked the inevitable, "You wouldn't send an ex-con to my house, would you?"

Part of his response: "Yes; if I was comfortable with him in my house, I'd probably be comfortable sending him to yours. But I'd never send him unescorted or unmonitored for an extended period of time."


Robert would expect the new trainee to make a special effort to gain his trust. "You're asking me to take a chance with you." That trust won't be built in six months. "I think that's the secret," he said.

"Do I want to give people a chance? Yes, I do," says Robert. "I believe that people can make mistakes. I'm not sure people change a lot, but I'm willing to accept that people are willing to do what it takes to overcome that.

"If you stay with them, reward them, stroke them a little, tell him he's doing a good job, he's much less inclined to want to go back to that other life.

"I spend a lot of money every month, trying to find qualified people," Robert continues. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, and I've got the warts on my lips to prove it. If you never kiss a frog, you'll never find a prince.

"I do believe there's good in all people, if you're able to touch it and find it," Robert says. "You have to take a little risk. But if you're a good enough business person, while taking that risk, you monitor the situation to protect yourself and your customers."

Robert is chairman of the State of Louisiana Work Force Com-mission. Robert Refrigeration is a third-generation company serving residential and light commercial customers. Brothers Ronnie and Kenny Robert own the company that their father, Johnny Robert, started in 1952.


Louisiana employers who hire released inmates are entitled to a $2,400 work opportunity tax credit that LDOL administers. LDOL also provides fidelity bonding for former inmates when bonding cannot be acquired through regular commercial channels.

Contractors who've found good prospects at the job fairs, prospects who turn out to be good workers sometimes moving into supervision - those contractors tend to come back.

Other contractors have employed convicted felons, including Edward Porter's refrigeration students at Hunt. Most of those identified by The News have established trust and succeeded in their jobs.

SIDEBAR: Not Your Traditional Classroom

Instructor Edward Porter is in a corner of the classroom/lab talking with a new student while others in the class pursue their self-paced studies.

Porter's prison-uniformed students aren't exactly typical. Unlike most classrooms, enrollees don't all arrive on day one. Instead, when one is released, another arrives to take his place.

Surprisingly, that works.

Each man, Porter says, "arrives with a shield around himself. I have to penetrate that shield. When I get them laughing and joking, they're more relaxed and they begin to talk about themselves. Then you've got a chance to teach 'em."

After orientation, students spend 6 hrs a day in class following a strict state curriculum. Studies have to be self-paced, with men arriving at different times and working at different levels.

Everyone starts with basic electricity, reading meters and wiring diagrams. Says Porter, "If he hasn't learned basic electricity, he'll be stumbling the rest of the way. You try to spend as much time as you can, making sure he understands.

"Once they get that under their belts, students begin to believe they can learn anything." That's the confidence they need to succeed.

Some of their time is spent troubleshooting a/c equipment brought to the center by St. Vincent de Paul in Baton Rouge and by the Salvation Army. "We work on 'em, repair 'em, and send 'em back to be sold or donated."

Porter got his training in the Air Force, where he spent 22 years. He's been instructor for Louisiana Technical College and based at Hunt for 17 years.

When contractor Ronnie Robert learned the students had no ice machine, he found one they can use. He also expects to find equipment students need to learn about electronics.

Porter's refrigeration class is part of The Louisiana Technical College-Westside Campus, which operates an academic program as well as the vocational school inside Hunt Correctional Center.

Besides refrigeration, inmates can learn building maintenance and repair, computer repair technology, consumer electronics repair, horticulture and landscaping, and outdoor power equipment repair.

A fast-track welding and shipfitting curriculum has helped 117 former inmates become professional welders at shipyards around the state.