One of the most difficult parts of re-entering society for convicted felons can be finding a way to earn a paycheck, but an upcoming job fair focused on those men and women will focus specifically on that barrier to employment.
The New Life Job Fair, sponsored by the city of Chattanooga, the American Job Center and Father to the Fatherless, is scheduled for Thursday and Friday. Its organizers believe it offers a necessary opportunity to ex-offenders trying to just make it through tomorrow.
"I spoke to a young man one day and he reported that he spent two years in jail, but he feels like he got a life sentence due to not being able to be gainfully employed due to a felony on his record," said Troy Rogers, the city's public safety coordinator.
"That has been the motivation behind us doing these job fairs."
What: New Life Job Fair
Where: American Job Center, Eastgate Town Center, 5600 Brainerd Road
When: Thursday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m., and Friday, 10 a.m.-1 p.m.
How much: Free
The fair itself will be held at the American Job Center on Friday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., but participants must attend a prep session the day before.
There, they will be coached through resume building, interview skills and proper dress, among other things. The hope is attendees will glean lifelong skills that can help those who see no way forward.
"It's essential to have these events because we must offer hope to the ones who are hurting. We are in times where we need to be compassionate and think out of the box," Rogers said.
"This is our third one and they have been very successful overall. We are very intentional about getting better every time and serving our community with maximum effort."
Ladarius Watson is among dozens of ex-offenders who found jobs through previous fairs. Watson works as a delivery driver for Niedlov's Breadworks.
He's been on the job now for several months and said he'd recommend the fair to anyone with a criminal history looking for a way to put food on the table.
"I walked in and they introduced me to everybody," he said. "They took us into a classroom where they split us up and taught us how to speak in a job interview as well as other things in life.
"It kind of gave us a different mindset on how to approach a job interview."
Watson said he made a connection with a community leader who was willing to vouch for him on a job application, with a caveat.
"He said, 'If I put my name on the line for you, you need to show out and turn up,'" Watson said. "He was telling me the importance of doing what I needed to do."
Working at Niedlov's has been a gratifying experience, Watson said, partly because of the welcoming work environment he walked into. Before he began there, he was rejected from one company after another because of his past.
"Before I even had an interview, they would turn me down. They'd say, 'You can't do it because you're a felon,'" he said. "We all make mistakes. We made a mistake and we broke the law, but for us to rehabilitate, we need some type of income to provide for ourselves and our families."
Offenders who don't find a way into the legal job market may turn to other, illicit sources of income.
"If you don't get a job, you get a different mindset. I've got to provide, I've got to do something to provide for my family," he said. "You go back to robbing, you go back to dealing drugs. You go back to doing whatever you know to do to provide."
Don Green, executive director of the law enforcement innovation center at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, said events such as this week's job fair can be an essential part of connecting people to a law-abiding lifestyle.
"Not to generalize, but money is always a deciding factor as to why some enter a criminal lifestyle, either to have a better lifestyle or to support a drug habit," he wrote in an emailed statement. "Helping those re-entering a 'normal' routine find an appropriate job that provides for basic needs is essential. Not just rent, transportation, food or clothes but also self esteem as to their worth."
"Being able to do a resume, interview or dress for a job helps them toward becoming productive in our communities and reduces recidivism."
Spots are still available for ex-offenders interested in exploring career options. Call 423-643-6702 for more information. Attendees are encouraged to come early to get the first opportunity at being hired.
Contact staff writer Emmett Gienapp at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6731. Follow him on Twitter @emmettgienapp.