New Florida Vocational Center Provides Job Skills to Inmates

By Lisa Kopochinski

TAMPA, Fla.—A new $1 million Hillsborough County Sheriff’s Office’s Vocational Training Center in Tampa is aiming to give county jail inmates marketable job skills and create a “pathway to employment” after their release.

The Tampa Bay News reported that the 10,000-square-foot center at the Falkenburg Road Jail complex opens this month with four programs — welding, carpentry, forklift operation and basic automotive repair — and will soon offer courses in plumbing, electrical and heating, ventilation and air conditioning. Inmates will receive a completion certificate and get help finding a job as their release date nears.

“Everyone deserves a second change at a brighter future and today with the opening of this vocational training center those futures start now,” said Sheriff Chad Chronister at a recent news conference.

“Construction is doing well, so there’s definitely a need,” said Keven Barber, business manager for the Iron Workers Local 397 in Tampa, in a statement.

This region is enjoying a building boom, but welders are in short supply. Employers who are looking for workers with welding skills will soon have another potential pipeline of applicants.

The Sheriff’s Office has also expanded its mental health and addiction treatment care for inmates, creating a housing unit dedicated to inmates in mental health crisis and a certified six-week intensive drug treatment program. At present, there are more than 40 educational programs, including GED and life skills.

A “veteran’s resurgence” program was launched last summer and is housed in a special unit in the jail. This program offers a range of services and links inmates to the Veterans Administration and other resources to help them transition out of jail.

“We’re not going to break the cycle of recidivism if we don’t take the necessary steps,” Chronister said.

The new vocational programs are available to inmates who are currently serving a sentence in the jail. This means there is a large pool for the 12 spots in new each vocational course.

According to the Sheriff’s Office, sentenced inmates account for about 60 percent of the roughly 3,000 people currently in the jail system.

Chronister told local media that the idea of this vocational center came about two years ago and called the end result a “cutting-edge” facility for a county jail in Florida. With its soaring ceilings and open floor plan, the center has the feeling of an airplane hangar.

The programs will be taught by instructors from the Hillsborough County School District and its technical colleges. Inmates will leave with a completion certificate and Sheriff’s Office case managers will work with CareerSource Tampa Bay to find employers who can provide job opportunities.

Participants who complete the program get to keep the hoods and other tools in their welding kits when they leave the jail. The cost to build and operate the center is covered by the Sheriff’s Office jail commissary canteen fund and not public tax dollars.