Pandemic pushed St. Louis job fair for ex-offenders online. It became more successful

By: - October 18, 2021 5:55 am

This year, more than 50 employers will take part in a job fair for ex-offenders, along with more than 100 participants (Getty images).

When Dominic Tornatore is released from St. Louis County jail this fall, finding a job will be critical to helping him get back on his feet.

Tornatore, 34, knows he’s made mistakes.

He’s struggled with drinking and has numerous drunk-driving offenses on his record. But he says he’s learned from a lifetime of bad decisions. 

“I’ve stumbled a little bit,” Tornatore said, “but when I get out, I will join [Alcoholics Anonymous], find a sponsor, and continue to stay sober because I know that’s what I need to do.”

Dominic Tornatore will participate in the Transformative Workforce Academy’s job fair on Oct. 19 in St. Louis specifically designed for people who have criminal records and struggle to find employment (Photo submitted).

On Tuesday, Tornatore will participate in a job fair specifically designed for people who have criminal records and struggle to find employment.

Before the pandemic, it would have been unheard of for Tornatore to attend a job fair from jail. 

But after the region’s shutdown in spring of 2020, the Transformative Workforce Academy — a St. Louis University initiative that works to address recidivism — started holding their job fairs online. 

“At first, we thought that virtual would be a poor substitute for the in-person (job fair),” said Lisa Cohn, the academy’s program manager.

But now, she said both employers and participants don’t want to go back to the giant-auditorium model, where job seekers nervously mill around employers’ booths all day. 

Plus, it allows people like Tornatore, who are still incarcerated, to get a jumpstart on their job search as well.

The academy designed a format where participants make a short video about themselves, their circumstances and how they’ve learned from their mistakes. Cohn then matches those candidates with the best fit employers. 

The employers get a reel of candidates, and then within 48 hours must schedule interviews with the candidates who stand out to them.

Every single person walks away with at least one employer lead, Cohn said, and it’s their choice whether they choose to go through with interview. Roughly 86 percent of people who follow up on the employer lead get a job within two months of the fair.

This year the job fair — which is sponsored by St. Louis-based Centene Corp. — will include more than 50 employers and more than 100 participants.

Cohn said other cities throughout the country have since reached out to the academy to try and replicate the virtual fair.

“I’m kind of thankful that the pandemic forced us to experiment and try something new, that we would never have otherwise tried,” she said.

The pandemic also pushed the academy to bring in about 60 volunteers to help job seekers create the videos and navigate the new digital platform. 

Jeff Smith, who chairs the County Justice Services Advisory Board, served as a volunteer job coach for Tornatore. (Smith also writes a monthly political column for The Independent)

“We want people to leave the jail and never come back,” Smith said, “and research shows that the faster releasees find gainful employment, the less likely they are to recidivate.”

If Tornatore lands a job, he will be among the academy’s first group of incarcerated participants to do so. In every previous fair, none of the job seekers were incarcerated.

The new model

Employers like the new job-fair model better because they don’t have to physically set up a booth and sit around all day, hoping that the right candidates make their way to their tables, Cohn said. 

Participants like it because they can take time to thoughtfully answer questions when they are making their videos. There’s also an added level of support that came with introduction of the volunteer job coaches, Cohn said.

Brendan O’Malley, a small e-commerce business owner, said he coached a 45-year-old man who spent about 12 years in jail for drug-related offenses. They met in Ferguson, where the participant lives, to talk through the process and record the video. 

“And catty-corner to where we are was a brand new shiny medical marijuana dispensary, where people have invested millions of dollars to profit off of the sale of what I believe to be a very harmless drug,” O’Malley said. “And this man spent 12 years of his life incarcerated for something similar.”

O’Malley was able to help him understand how to navigate the job market, which can be particularly challenging for people who have been removed from it for a while, he said. 

Participation in the job fair doesn’t just rely on goodwill of companies. Employers can earn more than $2,000 in tax credits per employee, through the Workforce Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) program. It’s a federal tax credit available to employers for hiring individuals from specific target groups who face barriers to employment. 

Because the job fair now mostly happens in people’s homes and offices, the academy only hosts an “opening ceremony” panel on Zoom from 9 a.m. to 9:45 p.m. on Tuesday.

After the panel, employers will receive their own individualized slide deck of candidate videos and will have until the end of the day Wednesday to review these videos and select the candidates they would like to interview.

“We aren’t asking employers to hire out of pity,” Cohn said, “Justice-involved jobseekers have talent, loyalty, and a work ethic that will benefit businesses and our region as a whole.”

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Rebecca Rivas
Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas is a multimedia reporter who covers Missouri's cannabis industry. A graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, she has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, including more than a decade as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American, the nation’s leading African-American newspaper.