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Hennepin County job training program pays people on probation to learn construction skills

17 May 2022

Breanna Dornsbach said her young life was in shambles.

At 22, she stole expensive merchandise to support her methamphetamine addiction. Facing prison time for at least her 16th criminal charge, she was about to lose her three children.

Then her probation officer took a chance on her with a Hennepin County job skills program.

She was one of 24 people on probation selected for the Productive Day program, which provides on-the-job training and classes for construction skills for six months and pays participants $15 an hour while they learn.

Participants also receive lunch boxes, steel-toed boots and rides to job sites. They also get their driver’s license back, financial advice and job opportunities when they graduate.

“The program saved my life,” said Dornsbach, 30, who is expecting her fourth child.

She graduated from the program last summer and is working for Knutson Construction on a project at the University of Minnesota, pouring concrete and installing cabinets. Before getting this chance, she said her career after prison likely would have involved eking out a living in the fast-food industry to support her children.

“Getting paid $15 an hour in the program was huge since I wasn’t earning any real money,” she said.

Knutson had hired her before she even graduated.

Productive Day is the only program in Minnesota that pays people on probation an hourly salary while learning job skills, said Jim McAllister, the program’s manager.

Four journeymen carpenters lead the training on tax-forfeited properties that have been vacant for a long time, he said. Participants get more than 1,000 hours of training and become part of the carpenter’s union.

Up to 24 people get into the program each year. They work Monday through Thursday and attend classes on Friday. The program used to include inmates from the state Department of Corrections, but that ended six years ago because state law allows people in prison to be paid only $1.50 an hour for training, McAllister said.

“That is why the $15 an hour is such an important piece,” he said. “Most people can’t take three or four months of unpaid training.”

Potential participants in Hennepin County’s program go through a well-being assessment to determine if they are a good fit for the program. The participants must be close to or have a GED and be between 18 and 35 years old. The program will consider some people on probation who are over the age limit.

Generally, the first 30 days for participants is pretty rocky as the program works through barriers such as housing, day care, health insurance and transportation, he said. The clients are under constant supervision by their assigned probation officers at job sites.

“There aren’t many programs where a probation officer spends all day and all week with their clients,” McAllister said.

About 60% of students finish the program, he said. The others drop out, usually due to the rigors of the work.

But that hasn’t dampened McAllister’s enthusiasm. Several alumni have started their own construction companies and many come back to share their experiences in the program.

Knutson Construction’s commitment to employing clients from Productive Day meshes with its goal of being inclusive to all people, even those who have made mistakes in the past, said Ramona Wilson, the company’s diversity director.

“We all have done things we regretted in our lives, and we hope you learn from it and become a productive member of society,” she said. “We are willing to give somebody that second chance.”

Wilson makes a special effort to meet women who are working for Knutson in the field. At a time where there is a lack of available construction workers, Productive Day “is a pipeline for us,” she said.

“We want to recruit people who want to work for us,” she said. “It’s a no-brainer for us. Why wouldn’t we do it?”

Dornsbach had little job experience before she started down her path of drugs and crime. Her dad was a handyman, and she did some side jobs with him. She will remain on probation for another couple of years, but she joked that her officer is pretty happy with her.

“Some people might take the program with a grain of salt. But the support is real. If you want it you get it,” she said. “I’m thankful and blessed.”

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