Mississippi County, Missouri, peeking over the banks of the Great River, has seen more than its share of struggle. The unemployment rate, just over 10 percent, is more than double the national average. Barely half of men in the county are participating in the labor force. With a child poverty rate of 45 percent and a poverty rate for African-Americans at nearly 60 percent - 36 percent higher than white residents - things are bleak.
Things are even harder for incarcerated residents preparing to re-enter the community from the criminal justice system. While we know that finding work is critical to post-incarceration success, clearing that hurdle is no easy feat. Incarcerated individuals are twice as likely as others to have less than a high school diploma, something likely to leave them unemployed or living in poverty. And if incarcerated folks don’t already have the skills they need to secure a job, the difficulty of accessing - and affording - education and training options with a criminal record can derail their transition.
But this week, the Missouri Department of Economic Development (DED) is kicking off a program that is helping clear both work and education barriers for incarcerated people preparing for re-entry.
In partnership with the Mid-America Food Hub, the DED is launching an apprenticeship to train new Certified Horticultural Crop Specialists. The program is aimed at serving currently incarcerated folks preparing to transition out of the criminal justice system. The DED partnered with the Southeast Correctional Facility in Mississippi County to recruit apprentices from among those currently incarcerated there. Set to launch today and start classes on March 12, the program will welcome 24 apprentices and support them as they gain marketable skills and transition back into the community.
The Mid-America Food Hub is the sponsor or the managing organization of the apprenticeship program, which will be funded in the first year with a $1.2 million Apprenticeship USA grant. To keep things rolling in the second year of the apprenticeship, Missouri will use $1 million from the governor’s WIOA set-aside to fund the program. After that, employers are ready to pitch in to keep the program sustainable.
In a registered apprenticeship, both on-the job training and classroom learning usually happen throughout the program. But since all of the 24 apprentices set to begin the apprenticeship in March are still incarcerated, this apprenticeship is structured a little differently. Apprentices will take classes while incarcerated, then start on-the-job training when they re-enter their community. As they leave the correctional facility, they’ll work with an assigned Transitional Life Coach who will provide individual mentorship, soft skills development, and support securing a local job in agriculture when the apprenticeship is through.
Though not currently a common field for registered apprenticeship, the structure of learning on the job with the support of a mentor is nothing new to ag. This is how small, family farmers transferred knowledge in the past, and this program formalizes that type of learning through the apprenticeship registration process.
While the starting pay for this occupation isn’t high - with more experienced workers earning around $15 per hour - that goes much further in southeast Missouri than many places. Average total housing costs per month in Mississippi County, for example, run about $575 per month, allowing someone earning this wage to spend only about a quarter of their income on housing. In addition to wages that include scheduled raises, the program offers - as do all registered apprenticeships - an industry-recognized credential at the end of the program to get apprentices’ foot in the door for year-round agricultural jobs in southeast Missouri or elsewhere.
This one program of 24 apprentices in a high-poverty area can’t turn the whole economic ship - or Mississippi steamboat - around. But, the Missouri DED is planning to offer a growing number of apprenticeships to residents around the bend, potentially including other roles needed to support local agriculture. The state’s aim to expand education and training in innovative ways to connect folks to job opportunities - especially Missourians marginalized or disconnected in some way - could provide social and economic benefits that ripple out to individuals, families, and communities across the Show-Me State.
Note: This post was edited to correctly identify the sponsoring organization.