Prison inmates training for aerospace work
Former inmates who land good-paying jobs are far more likely to stay out of trouble, state corrections officials say, and there’s a big demand now for certified aerospace-composite technicians.
The Associated Press
AIRWAY HEIGHTS, Spokane County — Forget license plates. Some inmates at the Airway Heights Corrections Center are training for jobs in the state’s huge aerospace industry.
About a dozen inmates are enrolled in a program that will make them certified aerospace-composite technicians. Their goal is a post-prison chance to land jobs at companies like Boeing and its suppliers.
“There is a strong shortage of people to be aerospace composite technicians,” said Chad Lewis, a spokesman for the state Department of Corrections.
The idea is that former inmates who have good-paying jobs are much less likely to return to prison, he said.
To be sure, the prison system still has job training in traditional inmate fields like upholstery and furniture making. But there was no good reason to ignore aerospace, Washington’s largest manufacturing sector, with jobs scattered across the state.
“We wanted to teach offenders something relevant to the local job market,” Lewis said.
Taught by instructors from a local community college, the inmates must earn 49 college credits to be certified. They are in class six hours a day, five days a week, and the program takes a year to complete at the medium-security prison in this suburb of Spokane. The classes are unique because they offer a combination of book learning and hands-on experience making composite materials. That combination makes abstract concepts easier for students to grasp and retain.
The first class of inmates will graduate in January.
It has been a positive experience for inmate Richard Syers, of Spokane, who dropped out of school in the sixth grade but has been earning A’s and B’s in the new program, which includes rigorous courses like trigonometry.
Syers, 42, hopes to move to Western Washington when he is released in 2½ years and continue training for a job in aerospace.
“Everything is composites now,” said Syers, who is serving time for sex crimes.
David Murley, dean of prison education for Spokane Community College, said more than half the inmates didn’t even have GEDs when they arrived in prison.
Murley said a survey of employers across the state found a dramatic shortage of workers in composite materials. He noted that Boeing’s new 787 is largely made of composites, which are defined as products made from two or more constituent materials with significantly different physical or chemical properties.
In addition to airplanes, composite materials are often used in boat hulls, swimming-pool panels, car bodies, shower stalls, bathtubs and spacecraft.
“Composites are everywhere,” Murley said. “There are tons of jobs out there.”
The program aims to train inmates for jobs that start at $15 an hour and go up, Murley said. He acknowledged that some employers might not hire former inmates, but he believes many will.
Inmate Jeffrey Swenson, 34, from Lake Tapps, Pierce County, said he always loved science in school.
“I’d like to be trained for a job in this area,” Swenson said as he used a pair of electric scissors to cut material.
Swenson, serving time for auto theft, noted he is not due for release until 2016, and wonders if employers will be willing to hire a felon. “It’s something I think about every day,” he said.
Mike Paris, educational administrator for the state Department of Corrections, said Airway Heights is one of five prisons in the state where the agency is combining classroom instruction with hands-on experience in better-paying professions. Inmates at the other prisons are being taught horticulture, building maintenance and baking as well as heating, ventilation and air-conditioning skills.
Prisons must constantly adapt their training programs, since even traditional inmate jobs such as welding and mechanics have become more complex, he said.
Paris estimated it costs about $2,000 per person to get inmates certified as aerospace technicians — far less than the cost of having a former inmate reoffend, go through the criminal-justice system and return to prison.
“It’s pretty clear this is the smart thing to do,” Paris said.