Training program

Hennepin County Vocational Training Program pays probationers to learn construction skills

Breanna Dornsbach said her young life was in shambles.

At 22, she stole expensive goods to support her methamphetamine addiction. Facing jail time for at least her 16th criminal charge, she was on the verge of losing her three children.

Then his probation officer tried his luck with a Hennepin County job skills program.

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

Participants also receive box lunches, steel-toed boots and trips to work sites. They also get their driver’s license, 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 works for Knutson Construction on a project at the University of Minnesota, pouring concrete and installing cabinets. Before she got that chance, she said her post-prison career would likely have involved making a living in the fast food industry to support her children.

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

Knutson had hired her before she even graduated.

Productive Day is the only program in Minnesota that pays probationers an hourly wage while learning job skills, program manager Jim McAllister said.

Four journeyman carpenters are leading the training on the confiscated properties that have been vacant for a long time, he said. Participants receive more than 1,000 hours of training and become members of the carpenters’ union.

Up to 24 people participate in the program each year. They work Monday through Thursday and attend classes on Friday. The program previously included inmates from the state Department of Corrections, but ended six years ago because state law allows inmates to receive only $1.50 from the hour for training, McAllister said.

“That’s why $15 an hour is so important,” he said. “Most people can’t do three or four months of unpaid training.”

Potential participants in the Hennepin County program go through a wellness assessment to determine if they are a good fit for the program. Participants must be close or have a GED and be between the ages of 18 and 35. The program will consider some people on probation who are over the age limit.

Typically, the first 30 days for participants are quite difficult as the program goes through hurdles such as housing, daycare, health insurance and transportation, he said. Clients are under the constant supervision of their probation officers assigned to the worksites.

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

About 60% of students complete the program, he said. The rest drop out, usually because of the rigors of the job.

But that didn’t dampen McAllister’s enthusiasm. Several alumni have started their own construction businesses and many return to share their experiences through the program.

Knutson Construction’s commitment to employing Productive Day customers is part of its goal to be inclusive for all people, even those who have made mistakes in the past, said Ramona Wilson, director of diversity at the ‘business.

“We’ve all done things we’ve regretted in our lives, and we hope you learn from them and become a productive member of society,” she said. “We are ready to give someone that second chance.”

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

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

Dornsbach had little professional experience before going down the road of drugs and crime. Her father was a handyman and she did odd jobs with him. She will remain on probation for a few more years, but she joked that her officer was 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 am grateful and blessed.”