‘Truly unique’ re-entry program gives students second chance in A.C.
ATLANTIC CITY — Kareem Otto Jones’ life has a new purpose.
As one of 38 individuals who completed the first HireAC! casino workforce development program, Jones, 40, beamed with pride as he stood at the podium Monday afternoon at the Atlantic City Convention Center.
High-ranking government officials, judges and probation officers, business executives, family and friends filled the room during Monday’s graduation ceremony. Recently hired at Caesars Atlantic City as a kitchen steward, Jones was among the 98 percent of program participants who received a second chance after being involved with the criminal justice system.
“I’m blessed,” Jones said. “I stand before y’all a very changed man. ... If I can change, anybody can change.”
The first-of-its-kind vocational training program, HireAC! is a collaborative effort among UNITE HERE Local 54 (the casino workers’ union), the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, New Jersey courts, state gaming regulators, the casino industry and the College and Community Fellowship.
“What’s really special about this program is we took an underutilized state asset (the industrial kitchen in the Convention Center) and worked with a union to acquire state funds from the Department of Labor to place people in private sector jobs,” said CRDA Executive Director Matt Doherty. “Oftentimes we talk about the need for breaking down silos and working together, but this shows what can happen when you actually execute it.”
Enrolled students received hands-on training from industry professionals in housekeeping, culinary and custodial services during a four- to eight-week program. After completing the program, they were placed into union restaurant and casino hotel jobs. Students were recruited through county, state and federal probation and parole departments, nonprofits serving previously incarcerated people, and Atlantic and Cape May recovery courts (formally drug court).
“The basic principle of what we wanted to accomplish was to help people,” said Atlantic County Superior Court Assignment Judge Julio Mendez. “A job is, without a doubt, the only social program that works, in my opinion.”
The collaborative public/private partnership was a direct response to the employment demands of two casino properties — Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Atlantic City and Ocean Resort Casino — which opened in June 2018. Of the 38 vocational training students, 28 have already secured employment or been offered positions in the Atlantic City hospitality industry.
“Look what can happen when like-minded men and women get together,” said Joe Jingoli Jr., one of the principal partners of Hard Rock. “We showed them what we all knew all along (which is) in Atlantic City, there is a good, smart, hard-working, trainable group of men and women in our community that just need opportunity. We overwhelmingly, and in a short period of time, proved that. There’s no going back now.”
Labor Department Commissioner Robert Asaro-Angelo said the programs are not a one-time occurrence. Angelo said that while his department provided the funding for the inaugural program, discussions and plans are already underway for the casino and hospitality industry in Atlantic City to continue underwriting the program so it can continue.
The labor commissioner said one of the things that made the HireAC!program so important was that students were provided with vocational and life training that would serve them well in any future endeavor.
“These skills that they’re teaching here are transferable to a thousand other jobs,” he said. “(The students) here took the step to create a career for themselves. So, no matter what happens, they can take these skills and use them anywhere.”
Casino Control Commission Chairman James Plousis, who is also the former commissioner of the state Parole Board, said these particular re-entry vocational programs are unlike anything he had seen before.
“There is nothing like this. It is truly unique,” he said. “When we talk about turning around Atlantic City, this is one of those programs that will do that.”
Participating employers included Caesars, Hard Rock, Bally’s Atlantic City, Harrah’s Resort Atlantic City, Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa, Tropicana Atlantic City, Sheraton Atlantic City Convention Center Hotel and Tun Tavern.