Mechatronics instruction may be a path to a good-paying job for some incarcerated young men in Wisconsin
Many Wisconsin employers are complaining of a labor shortage, especially of skilled workers.
Could the men and women soon to be released from correctional facilities help ease Wisconsin's labor shortage? Two state agencies are partnering with colleges to offer technical training to some people behind bars who are about to return to the community.
One training site is at the Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility, where about 300 men, ages 18-24, are under the state's care. It's a medium-security lock-up, a couple of miles northwest of downtown Racine. For many of the young men, it's their first incarceration.
Nine men have taken classes inside the correctional facility over the last few months from Gateway Technical College instructor J.D. Jones.
Jones teaches a type of engineering called mechatronics. He explained to a group of visitors Thursday the kind of work his graduates will be able to do.
"A maintenance technician who fixes machines in an automation factory. All factories need to go to automation in order to survive, both economically, business-wise, and so forth. Those machines stop. When those machines stop, we are the ones who get them running again," Jones said.
Jones spoke inside a specially designed truck trailer operated by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections, called the Mechatronics Mobile Training Lab. There are work areas with computers, small motors, and industrial control units with titles like PLC, which stands for programmable logic controllers.
A student from Milwaukee County, who we're identifying by his first name, Marcell, showed off his project.
"Anytime this blue light is on, the motor is going to be running. But the stop, I have an emergency stop switch, which is in right now and causes it not to run. So, once I take this out, the motor is running," Marcell said.
Marcell also showed how to make the motor run in reverse, which could help troubleshoot a problem at a factory. Marcell said he's taking the class because he wants to better himself.
"You know, it's a free education, so, I'm very grateful for that, and hey, it pays good," Marcell said.
The pay can range between $20-25 an hour for new hires, perhaps more during the current labor shortage.
Another mechatronics lab student, Lashawn Franklin of Racine, said he wants to be part of an economic recovery that's somewhat stunted by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
"In the career that I'm doing, it's always going to need people to work there. There's not a lot going on right now. So, I'll be pleased to help get everything back up and running," Franklin said.
The mechatronics graduates will also get help with their job search before next year's release date. The state Department of Workforce Development has opened a career center inside the Racine facility, one of several centers now in prisons around Wisconsin.
Some of the graduates may not need to wait long to be hired. On Thursday's tour, several employers joined the news media and state agency leaders. Jennifer Conner of the Milwaukee plant of Snap-On Tools said her company is often looking for trained workers.
"We have mechanics on site that we are continually hiring for. It's a challenge, especially with a three shift operation. So I'm getting to understand more about what they're teaching and learning," Conner said.
Teaming with Workforce Development, the Department of Corrections now has five mobile training trailers in state prisons, adding four of them under the Evers Administration. The other labs teach welding, electronics, and computer numerical controls. The department said about 250 people have graduated.
There are more than 20,000 people in the state's care, but Corrections Secretary Kevin Carr said he's focused on getting as many people as he can ready to become productive job holders and taxpayers when they're released from prison.
"You know, we take it day by day, and we have our eyes fixed on the long haul, not just the short term, and we'll just keep making progress," said Carr.
Sharlen Moore of Urban Underground, a Milwaukee youth advocacy group, was also on the tour. She said youthful offenders need more opportunities like the one at Racine Youthful Offender Correctional Facility.
"We should really leverage resources to make sure while an individual is incarcerated, they have the tools that when they come out, they can live a life that is fulfilling and meaningful," Moore said.
Especially at a time when many companies say, "We're hiring."