Shipyard training manager Sterling Dolese was skeptical about taking part in a work-release program from a local correctional institution. The results have exceeded all expectations.
From the shipyard at Avondale, just outside of New Orleans, ring the steel-on-steel sounds of progress. The shipyard is owned and operated by North Grumman Shipbuilding, a division of Northrop Grumman Corporation, whose 120,000 employees serve customers in aerospace, electronics, information systems, shipbuilding, and technical services worldwide. Training Manager Sterling Dolese has worked at Avondale since the election of Nixon and through the destruction of Katrina, playing an important role in the construction of seaworthy vessels.
Sterling bears responsibility for the education and training of a large workforce, including: new-hire training, upgrade training, apprenticeships, and leadership development.
Several years ago, Sterling had a meeting with judges from a local parish. They wanted Sterling to help some of their parolees gain job skills in the shipyard. He agreed to try it, but without sufficient support or supervision systems in place, said Sterling, “We really lost a lot of individuals.” The program flopped.
So four years ago, when Prison Fellowship’s Jean Bush, Whalen Gibbs, assistant secretary of Corrections, and other key partners asked Sterling to try again, he was skeptical. The shipyard didn’t need just bodies, he explained; it needed fit, reliable, trainable employees. But at their urging, he agreed to do a pilot program: one year, ten men on work-release from a local correctional facility—first-time, non-violent offenders who were screened for suitability by the La. Department of Corrections.
The results, said Sterling, were “phenomenal.” Glowing reports came back from shipyard supervisors about the men’s performance, attitudes, and attendance. Adequately screened, and far preferring the shipyard to a cell, the work-release employees outstripped expectations. Based on the success of the pilot, the program has continued for four years.
While many of the men have moved on, others have stayed. “We have had some very good craftsmen come out of this program,” said Sterling. And he feels confident that even those who move on have acquired a desirable set of journeyman skills, making them employable elsewhere.
Sterling advises other employers to “give a chance” to these work-release prisoners or former prisoners. “Start with small groups of employees,” he urges. “Everyone needs a second chance.”