Clipboard and laptop

North Bay Jail trains residents on workplace employability skills

Opened in 1930, North Bay Jail houses up to 110 incarcerated men and women awaiting trial, sentencing, transfer to federal and provincial correctional facilities, or serving sentences under 120 days. or sentences to Provincial custody. The correctional facility offers ongoing programming to its residents across a number of different areas, such as substance abuse, literacy and life skills, but due to COVID-19 they were unable to bring in external practitioners to lead these programs.

Shannon Palmer, the men’s social worker at the jail, was pressed to find programming that she could run internally on her own throughout the pandemic. With a quick Google search, she came across UP Skills for Work offered by ABC Life Literacy Canada.

“I came across the program in December and was able to run it as a pilot as early as January, as a new year, new program offering,” Palmer says. “It was so easy to get involved as a facilitator. All of the information I needed was available on the website, including the course content, and when I got in touch with my community coordinator at ABC Life Literacy, she responded right away and we were able to get the program up and running in a short time, all during COVID-19.”

Palmer says the way the program was laid out made it easy for her to run because all of the material she needed was sent right to her, meaning she didn’t have to come up with the curriculum or find resources herself. She also liked that it didn’t require external staff coming into the facility.

“The materials were really well put-together and delivered right to my door, so it made it so easy,” she says. “It’s nice to get a full-colour workbook since most of our programming consists of just print-outs from the computer. It really gives the program more dignity and makes it feel more substantial and credible, especially for those who haven’t been in school for a long time.”

UP Skills for Work aims to help learners develop key work and life skills that align with the Skills for Success framework. Topics include: Motivation, Attitude, Accountability, Presentation, Teamwork, Time Management, Adaptability, Stress Management, and Confidence. These employability or soft skills help workers to be adaptable and motivated throughout their whole employment and as they move into new roles or careers.

Palmer says that these types of skills are really important, and that soft skills are typically what gets someone fired or not hired. She believes that while some employers may look at soft skills as optional, they’re actually the real skills that make it harder to get or keep a job if you don’t have them.

“You can teach anybody a hard skill, but soft skills like attitude and motivation are harder to come by,” she says.

Many individuals with a criminal record already face a barrier to employment, so by improving their soft skills, it can help improve their chance of employment.

One of the other features that Palmer liked best about the program was that each of the topics could be run individually, so learners could reap benefits immediately after attending just one session.

“The challenge with offering programming to a remanded population is that they can be released at any time. On average, the men only stay with us for 60 days, so we can’t really offer programming that builds because they may not be here long enough to complete the entire program. With UP Skills for Work, the workshops are one-offs, which is great because learners can hop in at any point – they don’t need to attend the other sessions to gain the knowledge.”

The feedback from participants has been great thus far. While the facility doesn’t make program attendance mandatory, most people want to do them and some of the participants have already completed nine of the UP Skills for Work workshops. Palmer says once someone’s done one or two workshops, they want to do more, and then they tell their friends about the program or show them their certificate of completion, and others join through word of mouth.

“Participation has been really good, and the discussion is positive during the workshop, even amongst those who are usually disengaged,” says Palmer. “The subject matter is so accessible – the workbooks never imply that people aren’t good at these skills already, so there is no shame. The material is very welcoming and inclusive across all genders, races and cultures.”

The workshops have been run in one-to-one or two-to-one settings due to COVID-19, but Palmer hopes to run the workshops in a bigger setting after pandemic restrictions lift. She’s also shared the program with other correctional facilities across Northern Ontario and encourages them to sign up.

To learn more about UP Skills for Work, to access resources, or to book a workshop, visit www.upskillsforwork.ca.