Career fair offers new job opportunities for convicted felons

Friday, October 25, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- Every applicant was a felon and every recruiter knew it at this week's job fair at the University of Missouri at St. Louis.

The Partnership for Success Job Fair was praised by judges as a common-sense approach to breaking a cycle of repeat offenses. The region's state and federal probation officers organized the event, a first for the area.

Without even introducing himself, Charles May told a Navy recruiter about his felony carjacking. When the recruiter told May the crime was too violent for the Navy, he understood.

"I think it's pretty cool they're willing to look past people being felons and give everybody a chance," said May, 23, of Herrick, Ill., who spent three years behind bars.

U.S. District Judge E. Richard Webber said the 50 recruiters at the fair represented hope to break the seemingly endless line of young men who enter his court with no fathers, little education and few job opportunities.

"We have got to break the cycle of hopelessness," Webber said.

The national push to match offenders and jobs has led to fairs in other states, said Pat Dougherty, a federal probation officer.

Long lines

Figures from March show St. Louis and St. Louis County had about 15,500 people on state probation or parole, Dougherty said. More than one fourth were underemployed and as many with no jobs at all. Hundreds of ex-offenders waited in a long line to get in.

Andrew Waddell said he would consider hiring convicted murderers to work at 12 St. Louis area locations for Continental Cleaners, if they had gone through rehabilitation.

"If the state government has determined it's OK for that person to be unincarcerated, then I shouldn't have a problem giving them a job," said Waddell, Continental Cleaner's vice president.

Waddell said he had three felons on the payroll now -- two in management -- performing well and earning between $20,000 and $50,000 a year. He left the fair with 250 resumes.

As for liability, Waddell suggested insurers not ask if businesses employ ex-convicts.

James Logan, who operates two Midas auto service shops in St. Louis, said his former felons, at least three, make great employees.

"I feel that anybody can change," Logan said.

Eric Swearengen, 22, who spent a year in prison for possession of crack cocaine, left Logan's table hoping for a job that starts at $8 to $10 an hour.

"Midas would be a big plus for me if they do call," said Swearengen, a dishwasher at a suburban St. Louis bar.

Roger Cohen, president of Rocket Polymers, a rubber products manufacturer in St. Louis, said he had never hired a felon but was considering it now because reliable workers were scarce.

Washington University Medical School was one of the largest recruiters at the fair. It routinely has 200 jobs open for medical assistants, clerks and custodians with pay around $12 an hour.

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