David van Mersbergen is a job candidate with a master’s degree in business administration, an easy smile, a quick sense of humor -- and a federal criminal history.
Despite his higher education, van Mersbergen just wrapped up a four-week training class to get him reintroduced to the work force and preparing him to go through job interviews. The toughest questions are the ones such as, “Have you ever been convicted of a crime?”
Van Mersbergen helped 35 people get GEDs in a Kentucky prison, and he hopes to reach out to more who need help. First, though, he has to figure out how to answer that question.
Sheila Tyler Arnum, a federal defense attorney, told him to be upfront. When he murmured vague answers to questions about his past, including conspiracy to commit mortgage fraud, he also missed opportunities to say how he’s now a model employee.
“I think you’re a great cheerleader for someone,” she said. “I think teachers walk on water.”
He nodded at the advice, thinking about how to put his best foot forward next time.
Van Mersbergen was among four graduates of the training program going through the mock job interviews late last week at Goodwill Industries in Macon. The interviews and training are run as a collaborative effort, with partners including the Macon Re-Entry Coalition, the U.S. Probation Office, Dismas Charities and Goodwill.
It’s still a tough job market for anyone, and it’s much tougher for people with criminal histories and, often, little education or skills, said Reginald Banks, director of Dismas Charities, which runs a federal halfway house that helps transition convicts back into society.
“The big predictor is they dropped out of school,” he said.
Kevin Mason, a federal probation officer who is vice president of the Macon Re-Entry Coalition, points to Georgia Department of Corrections statistics on inmates. Last year, about 9 percent of state inmates had a middle-school education or worse. More than half hadn’t gone to their last year of high school. Just 45 percent had been working a full-time job before they went to prison. One in 12 had never worked at all. One in 5 hadn’t worked for the better part of a year.
“We take it for granted that every day, we get up and go to work,” Mason said. “Some of these guys do not know how to get up and be responsible and go to work every day.”
But Mason said the ability to hold a job is critical to a former inmate’s success. That’s helped lead to a greater push for re-entry services across the state, particularly in the Macon area. The classes started earlier this year.
Building for the future
Banks said it’s too early to tell if the classes are effective in helping turn lives around. But with multiple strikes against them, inmates leaving prisons and jails are likely to benefit from almost any help, he said.
Some have been making strides. Steven Parks, 30, of Milledgeville, said he’s getting his GED and has been learning to read, write and even teach Arabic.
He went to the job interviews Friday to get additional practice, even though he accepted a job Thursday at a Forsyth company that makes pallets.
In his first interview, he took a few deep breaths, offered a firm handshake to Macon Workforce Development official Sheknita Davis, and kept his smile, his confidence and his posture. He said that since his conviction on a bank larceny charge about eight years ago, he has matured and learned from his mistakes.
“I know how to work and listen better,” said Parks, who starts working 10-hour shifts Monday.
Donnie Bryant, chairman of the Macon Re-Entry Coalition and pastor of Swift Creek Baptist Church, said society makes it clear how to help an injured dog on the side of the road. And teams quickly moved in to clean up pelicans hurt by a Gulf of Mexico oil spill.
But people don’t know how to help when they see people living beneath overpasses.
“We’re trying to find out how to help humans and pick them up,” Bryant said.
The humans going through the practice job interviews Friday were looking for a way to pick themselves up.
“I’m available,” said Richard Teasley to a mock job interviewer.
Teasley, 50, of Hartwell, said he has more than a decade of experience driving trucks and forklifts. His résumé showed he has a commercial driver’s license. He came bearing paperwork showing employers can get a free federal bond and a state credit of up to $2,400. Mostly, though, Teasley brought himself and his story.
“I have been rehabilitated,” he said.
To contact writer Mike Stucka, call 744-4251.