For 10 inmates at the Chain O'Lakes Correctional Facility, an 80-hour class at Ivy Tech Community College was their ticket to a second chance.
The men – along with their instructor, warden and family members – gathered Tuesday in a lecture hall on the Fort Wayne campus for the inaugural welding program's graduation ceremony. The inmates earned American Welding Society certifications.
“There's so much to be proud of here today,” said Scott Wilson, workforce alignment consultant at the Fort Wayne campus. “I think we're all fortunate we live in a country and a society that believes in second chances, and that's what this is all about.”
Staniko Hannah, whose family and girlfriend attended the ceremony, described the achievement as a “major comeback” from a “minor setback.”
Donald Roush II called it a blessing.
“It's a career now, not a job,” he said, adding he is among the graduates planning to work at Dexter Axle in Albion.
The program, part of Gov. Eric Holcomb's Next Level Agenda for 2018, trained the men with the goal of finding jobs upon release. Some graduates qualified for work release or were released and will be placed in jobs.
A news release described welding as an “exceptional pathway” for released offenders. In Indiana, the mean annual wage for welders was $39,090 in 2017. Fort Wayne was slightly higher at $39,690, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Charles Bowen, the Chain O'Lakes warden, told the graduates their success isn't entirely dependent on newly acquired skills.
“None of this – this welding certificate and this graduation and all this training – means nothing if you don't practice character, good character,” Bowen said. “With your good character and the skills that you've earned, ... the sky's the limit.”
Fort Wayne was the second site for the training program, which saw success in Madison with a women's correctional facility, Wilson said. Fort Wayne's partnership with Chain O'Lakes continues this summer with two CNC classes and another welding class through a Workforce Ready Grant, he said.
The hope is the Indiana Department of Correction will permanently fund the program, Wilson said, noting the agency funded the initial welding class.
Bowen thanked Dexter Axle for hiring graduates.
“These are really pretty good guys who did some dumb stuff,” he said.
Business at Dexter Axle is strong, employing three shifts over a five-plant campus, said Holly Pfeiffer, human resources manager. Working with the correctional facility – also in Albion – was a natural fit, she said.
The company seeks employees who want to be part of a team – a characteristic the graduates show, said Paul Coolidge, welding department supervisor.
Joseph Surry plans to work and save money while finishing his sentence. His release date is in November. He intends to return to Ivy Tech, likely in January, to learn more skills, he said.
“You guys are always welcome,” Wilson said. “We'd love to have you back as students.”