Hiring ex-convicts who have completed formal HVACR training while they were incarcerated involves an element of risk. It is not uncommon for an ex-convict to fail during the process of rehabilitation and return to criminal activities. A recent 15-state study by the U.S. Department of Justice - Office of Justice Programs showed that over two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years. Many ex-convicts are habitual offenders and would not make suitable candidates for re-entry into the job market through work in the HVACR industry.

Sending an ex-convict into a home or business can be risky for HVACR contractors. The owner's business reputation and the company's very existence are at stake. Protecting customers and keeping insurance costs down are always important concerns, and these issues loom even larger when adding an ex-convict to the payroll.

But branding all ex-convicts as unhireable and unreliable may rule out potentially valuable workers who have been successfully rehabilitated and look forward to meaningful and useful lives and careers.

"The ones that are really interested will make the best of their second chance," said Doug Tolliver, an HVAC instructor and Construction/Maintenance Tech III at Hillside Community Corrections Center in Oklahoma City. "I will only help - or recommend - the ones I am confident in. They should be given a second chance if they demonstrate the desire to do well."

Steve Karow, an HVACR instructor at Fox Lake Correctional Institute in Fox Lake, Wis., added, "They should be given a second chance. Most never had the opportunity to finish school or go on to trade school. So, that's why they end up here, and now they do have the opportunity to complete a trade.

"I have had some students where a relative has found them a job in the HVACR field when they are released. They receive other classes in communications, math, and occupational success strategies that help them to become employable. They now do portfolios in class and document all their classes and projects while they're here."

Available Training

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, in 2000, 91 percent of state prisons and 88 percent of private prisons offered educational opportunities. All federal prisons offer courses. There are many courses available to inmates that are related to the HVACR trade including electrical, refrigeration, and computer troubleshooting.

Tolliver teaches at the Hillside Community Corrections Center, a female facility. He emphasizes practical application-type training.

"We have about 40 HVACR units in the facility, ranging in size from 2 tons to 15 tons (three walk-in coolers and one walk-in freezer, as well as a number of ice machines, water coolers, and window units). This gives inmates a good understanding of HVACR after a few months."

Karow said his curriculum starts with the basics. "All of these courses start out with the basics and fundamentals such as the theory of heat, components of the refrigeration system and how they work together, principles of electricity and troubleshooting," stated Karow.

The Fox Lake hands-on instruction includes working on gas and oil furnaces. Troubleshooting problems on air conditioning systems, hydronic systems, heat pumps, and refrigeration units are also part of the curriculum.

Toliver explained the instruction at his institution. "I give HVACR classroom training every Friday afternoon for two hours," he said. "Anyone can attend, however, all of the HVACR apprentices are required to attend. It is kind of open-entry/open-exit type of training, and I cover basics, components, troubleshooting. The EPA training is with the books and videos that I purchased.

"I keep all of the current mechanical journeyman material required by the Oklahoma Construction Industries Board that are needed for taking licenses test. I assist in studying and transport individuals to the test site when they meet the state requirements."

One of Tolliver's students, in-mate Kathy Hunter, said the training is good because it is more than just theory; it involves a lot of hands-on and on-the-job-training. She added, "We use Modern Refrigeration and Airconditioning, 18th Edition, by Althouse, Turnquist, Bracciano for our textbooks. Also we have the opportunity to get our EPA Section 608, Refrigerant Handlers Certification while we are here."

Troy Singer, an inmate at Lake Erie Correctional Institution in Conneaut, Ohio, plans to enter the HVACR field upon his release despite the fact that his institution does not offer any formal HVACR instruction. Singer worked in HVACR before his incarceration and is using electrical training to round out his experience.

"The building trades courses here teaches the basics of plumbing, masonry, carpentry, electricity, etc.," he said. "The electronics course is the only course that could be applied to HVACR, since electronics is widely used in HVACR."

Singer said his work at the institution takes the place of formal training. The work includes being on the crew that handles all of the HVACR, major plumbing, and electrical work at the facility. He is now getting commercial experience and hopes to translate that into commercial service work upon his release.

"The kitchen has several walk-in coolers and freezers, and there are ice machines throughout this institution," he noted. "We have already serviced two ice machines and detected a faulty defrost timer on one of the walk-in freezers.

"The heating system consists of multiple Cleaver Brooks hot water boilers which are fed into multiple Trane air handlers. The A/C system consists of two 80-ton air-cooled McQuay screw compressor water chiller systems, also tied to the Trane air handlers. The entire HVAC system is tied into a computer-controlled system.

"The kitchen also has many exhaust fans, which stem from the kitchen exhaust hoods. So, as you can see, this institution covers every aspect of the HVACR industry."

Training is much more than theory and hands-on, too. It also includes the soft skills that are necessary to live a normal life after prison release. Bob Creason, an instructor at the Boley Career Tech Center at the John Lilley Correctional Center in Boley, Okla., said that some of the inmates need to learn soft skills as simple as balancing their checkbooks in order to succeed after release. The curriculum at Boley "helps the guys get rid of their baggage," added Creason.

Creason said that since so many inmates enter and leave the training programs at different times, it is necessary to have a "tiered" system. But he stressed that all inmates learn the basics of HVACR and electricity, so they can diagnose and troubleshoot systems and equipment.

HVACR As A Career Choice

Despite the availability of HVACR-related coursework, the question remains: Will students pursue HVACR as a career once they are released?

Tolliver said some inmates bide their time in various training programs, including HVACR, because "it looks good on their file." He said he can usually determine which ones are sincere and take their training seriously.

"Surprisingly, a lot of the women want to know how to do more for themselves, so they are less dependent on others," he said. "I had one male inmate that got out after taking his contractors exam and started his own company. He now has three service trucks and about seven employees. I have sent other inmates to him that have done well."

Karow said inmates often make the best students because they know there are a lot of opportunities in HVACR once they are released. "When they enter the prison system, they are assessed to see what their needs are," he said.

"Their records will show what they need. That could be drug programs, etc., or vocational needs. When they arrive here, they are evaluated on the academic skills to make sure they meet the requirements for the vocational program they choose.

"When they have met the requirements, then I get them in class. The HVAC class takes about one year and about 37 credits to complete. So while they're in prison, they still have to account for their time and show progress."

The inmates interviewed by The News said their institutions leave it up to the inmates to find work once they are released, which can be discouraging.

"I have very little faith in this prison system," Singer said. "I do not see any worthwhile job placement assistance. But John Tomczyk from Ferris State [HVACR instructor] has offered to help find me a job. And I am also trying to make contacts that will aid me in finding a job."

Hunter is optimistic that good word-of-mouth will help her land a job in HVACR. "It's up to each person to find their own job," she said. "If we do good enough, we can get a reference from our supervisors."

Creason said his staff actively helps inmates find work in the HVACR and other fields. "This year we are running about 69 percent placement, not just HVAC but also other programs like maintenance," he said. "The majority of them look at this as a career. A lot of them had no skills before they were incarcerated. Some were nervous before coming here, but they are ready for work when they leave. Boley only has about 500 people, so a big percentage of them wind up in Oklahoma City or Tulsa."

But not all will find the work they want. Creason said commercial refrigeration companies will not hire ex-convicts to work in schools or hospitals because Oklahoma law does not allow them to work in those environments.

Life After Prison

Although the study referenced earlier in this article found a high number of ex-convicts return to a life of crime, there are still many who successfully rehabilitate and become useful and productive members of society.

"I have all kinds of apprehension about finding a job when I get out," said Hunter. "However, I was referred to a company by [instructor] Tolliver and they said they would give me a chance. I will do my best to succeed."

Singer added, "I may have some doors closed to me. But once I get my foot in the door - somewhere - my employer will realize that I am unquestionably trustworthy."

Creason said inmates just need a second chance to make the best of their lives and shouldn't have to keep paying for a mistake. "Most of these guys are just ordinary people who made one mistake," he said.

Sidebar: Inmates Talk About A Future In HVAC

The students in Steve Karow's class at the Fox Lake Correctional Institution in Fox Lake, Wis., responded to questions fromThe Newsin an informal poll for this series. Each inmate was asked the following questions:

1. Why did you choose HVACR training?

2. Do you plan to make HVACR a career? If yes, what type of position?

3. How is the training at Fox Lake?

4. Will you get assistance in job placement after you are paroled?

5. Any apprehensions about going "legit" and finding an employer who will trust you?

The following answers are a sampling from the 16 respondents.

Why They Choose HVACR

  • "I chose it because of the job security. Whether it is for business or personal use, there is always a need for heating and cooling. I also believe that in Wisconsin there is a lack of marketing HVACR job opportunities to Hispanics."

  • "There is a high demand for HVACR technicians and they get paid well. It is good to know this for personal knowledge, too."

  • "This field fascinates me because it combines small engines, welding, mathematics, and plumbing."

  • "A friend had signed up for the class and told me this is probably the best field to get involved in."

  • "Most of the time you get to move around on the job. And it's one of the only jobs not being shipped overseas."

  • "My brother has his own company where I was a helper and some day I would like to run my own company."

    Planning An HVACR Career

  • "I eventually want to get into large commercial equipment."

  • "I would like to either install or repair residential air conditioning and heating systems."

  • "I hope to be a certified HVACR technician and go through an apprenticeship, if necessary."

  • "Residential would suit me better because I like to move around a lot. However, I would work in the commercial field, too. I like it all."

  • "I plan on getting involved in light commercial or residential. We have a lot of Mexican restaurants here, and I would be more comfortable explaining my work to them in Spanish."

    Training At Fox Lake

  • "We have a very helpful teacher and do a lot of hands-on training."

  • "It's excellent. We have access to a lot of information and computer programs. The instructor is willing to explain things in a simple and understandable way."

  • "It is self-paced; and we have really good books."

  • "I'm learning more here than I would on the streets. We learn the right way to do things, like not cutting refrigerant lines when we dispose of equipment. It hurts the ozone layer."

  • "Although we are somewhat limited, our instructor tends to find more creative ways to teach. This class is for those who want change and advancement in their lives."

    Job Placement

  • "I plan to secure a job six months prior to my release. Being prepared is something we learn here."

  • "I'm pretty sure I'll get assistance. Hopefully not too many places will discriminate because I'm a felon."

  • "I am going to try, but I'm not sure if I will get any help."

  • "I am in the Wisconsin DOC's Career Development Project and I hope they will stay true to their word and find me a job prior to my release."

  • "I will get assistance through the local technical college in my area."

  • "I believe I have enough knowledge about employment seeking and how to go about getting hired."

  • "I already have a few opportunities through other sources and contacts."

    Apprehensions About The Future

  • "I have always been an honest worker with a strong work ethic and no employer should ever have a problem trusting me."

  • "I have no apprehensions. The courses have prepared us for the process of finding an employer and have given us confidence that our skills are valuable."

  • "I will find an employer somewhere that will hire me because they need people to work and get the job done. That's all that matters the most."

  • "Yes, people look at convicts differently, and we already have one strike against us. I just hope that my job skills, training, and people skills will be enough to get me the job I deserve."

  • "It is hard for a felon to get a job. Carnivals will hire you because no one wants to work for them."

  • "I'm no different than a ‘will train' candidate. Going ‘legit' will eliminate the institution memories."

  • "I can't knock someone for trying to protect their establishment. I'll just have to earn and gain that trust. I can't give up because eventually I strongly believe that I'll be given the chance - and I'll make the best of it."

    Publication date: 06/27/2005