Low unemployment and the shifting job preferences of millennials can make it tough for companies to find skilled workers, causing some to turn to an oft underutilized resource: ex-prisoners.
Advocates say skills developed on the wrong side of the law can be put to good use. That’s been the story of Tracey Syphax, a former drug dealer turned entrepreneur and motivational speaker.
Syphax, whose misdeeds landed him in prison for five years starting in the 1980s, went on to establish Trenton-based Phax Group Construction & Design and Phax Group Real Estate.
“I was lucky enough to get a job with a roofing company soon after I was released from prison,” Syphax said. “The owner had his own troubled background so he was willing to give me a chance. I worked my way up to supervisor after about two years. At that point, I had learned the craft, and I wrote my first business plan and started my own small roofing company.”
In his business life, Syphax has tapped into older skills such as “developing a supply chain, honing your customer-service skills, building an appetite for measured risk and learning how to quickly size people up.”
He added that “after you’ve dealt with heroin and crack addicts, you can quickly determine if someone is serious about a deal or if they’re trying to run a game with you.”
In 2014, President Obama honored Syphax among the White House’s Champions of Change, and in 2017 then-Gov. Chris Christie pardoned him for a decades-old conviction for possession and possession with intent to distribute. Syphax, in turn, has helped mentor former felons on how to tap their entrepreneurial drive.
“We teach entrepreneurism as tool ‘cause many former inmates have the attributes to be an entrepreneur,” he said. “With a shrinking labor force, businesses in New Jersey and elsewhere should consider taking on an employee who appears to be dedicated, even if there’s a blemish on their record. We miss out on talent if we don’t do it.”
Eastern Millwork President Andrew Campbell has a similar outlook. The owner of an architectural woodworking firm in Jersey City, he said that the combination of a low unemployment rate and the unwillingness of many millennials to work in the trades made it tough to find skilled laborers.
So Campbell expanded his search to include ex-convicts.
“Right now we’re in a big labor crunch,” said Campbell. “Some people are simply not motivated to work at a skilled labor position and I’ve found that you can spend a lot of time training millennials, but after a short time they want to move on to something else. Some ex-cons, however, are highly motivated, appreciate the opportunity to work and they developed skills in their former life that can actually help them on the right side of the law.”
Campbell currently employs three former prisoners. One started on the loading dock about a decade ago and worked his way up manage Eastern Millwork’s logistics operations. Two others, referred to him by a nonprofit organization called the New Jersey Reentry Corp., have each been with the company for several years and work as machine operator and benchman.
“They each made some mistakes, but they also came here with basic skills like relating to people and being able to handle sudden changes in a situation,” Campbell said. “Additionally, they’re very motivated and appreciate the opportunity to work at a steady job.”
New Jersey Reentry Corp., established by former Gov. Jim McGreevey after he left office, partners with faith-based and professional associations to offer a holistic approach that includes mentoring, addiction treatment, transitional housing, training and employment, and legal services from the New Jersey State Bar Association’s Young Lawyers Division.
McGreevey said that the street smarts and other survival skills that former prisoners picked up along their journey on the wrong side of the law may help them succeed in legitimate businesses. But they often need some help in navigating the difficult path of re-entry.
Dan Galvan, Jersey Shore Steel
“People need to be stabilized first,” said McGreevey. “They may have talents but we’ve got to resolve fundamental needs like identification, housing, food, medical and other care. Then they often need training from organizations like the New Jersey Manufacturing Extension Program so they can achieve industry-recognized credentials.”
He pointed to program graduates like Candido Ortiz, a former drug dealer, as an example of how this kind of approach can help turn people around. Ortiz was behind bars from 1990-2016.
“While in federal prison, Ortiz served as head cook, managing a culinary team of 20 and preparing meals for as many as 2,500 inmates each day,” said McGreevey. “Within a month of his release, Ortiz enrolled in the New Jersey Reentry Corp.’s program and soon found a job as a cook at the Light Rail Café in Jersey City. We later put together a group of local Latino businesses to help Candido raise funds, and in December 2017 he opened his own restaurant, El Sabor Del Café, at 31 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive in Jersey City.”
Said Ortiz: “I took chances when I was on the streets, but they were the wrong kinds of chances. But I got an education when I was incarcerated, and when I opened my restaurant in this neighborhood it was taking a different kind of chance. People knew that I was from the area so they trusted me, and business is good.”
Ortiz has a contract to provide meals to the New Jersey Reentry Corp. “What I did in the past was wrong,” he said. “And it took me more than 20 years to succeed, but people should know that you can always change things.”