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St. Louis job fair for ex-offenders grows amid labor shortage

St. Louis job fair for ex-offenders grows amid labor shortage

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ST. LOUIS — A job fair for a group of workers long overlooked is drawing more attention amid the nationwide labor shortage.

St. Louis University’s latest “second chance” event for job seekers with criminal records drew 65 employers Tuesday, up by nearly half from this time last year.

Demand has been building throughout the year with the economy reopening and hiring managers struggling to keep up, said Lisa Cohn, who organizes the fair.

“A lot of employers are interested in hiring from a new talent pool,” she said.

Mike Doorack, owner of Clayton-based MFI Masonry, has looked there three times now, including once when he was in a pinch this summer staffing up for his busiest season.

“All three have been success stories,” he said. “They’re hardworking, show up on time, have a great attitude, and give a damn about the work.”

Jackie Huebbe, owner of SugarBot Sweet Shop in St. Charles, said the job seekers also appreciate the opportunity more deeply than the average high-schooler looking for a part-time job. One of the best employees she’s ever had came from the most recent fair in April, she said.

Former state Sen. Jeff Smith, who spent a year in prison for lying to the FBI, is an advocate for the fair and said such success stories are wins for society, too. The vast majority of inmates are scheduled to be released at some point, and once they are, there’s little better prescription for staying out than a good job. It offers income, a sense of purpose — and an important vote of confidence.

“It’s easier to commit crimes against the community when it’s rejected you,” Smith said. “If you’ve been invited back, you’re not going to be as inclined to bust into somebody’s car.”

The fair is in its fourth year. It went virtual amid the pandemic last year.

The fair works by having ex-offenders create two-minute videos introducing themselves to employers with help from volunteer coaches. Employers watch videos from those interested in their industry and let organizers know who they want to interview.

Cohn, who runs the fair, said about 80% of job seekers follow up on the leads, and the vast majority of them get jobs.

BJ Gebhart, 54, was released from prison last year after serving time for murder. The program hooked him up with a part-time job at a bakery, and he loves it. “It’s something I thought I would never get to do,” he said.

On Tuesday, he was hoping to get another job to supplement his bakery wages. He works a second shift now at a packaging plant, making $14.70 per hour, but he doesn’t love it. He likes working with the public.

And he thought an interview with a city ice cream shop Monday went well.

“She said she could definitely beat $14.70,” he said.

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