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This Miami job fair gives Floridians a second chance - regardless of their past

A small silver bell is on a small black table. Behind it is a small chalkboard with the words "Opportunity bell" on it.
Anita Li
The bell participants ring when they've made progress in finding a job.

About 200 people came to the Miami Vineyard Community Church in Kendall last Tuesday afternoon to find a job — and a second chance.

The job fair was organized by nonprofit Better Together in partnership with the local church to connect willing employers with job-seekers who have been previously incarcerated.

One attendee was Kelso Rodriguez, 43, of Little Havana. He told WLRN he got two interviews at the job fair. He said he’s glad to have the opportunities after hearing about the event from his probation officer. It’s his first attempt at finding a job after being incarcerated for four months.

“I was super surprised by how kind the people here were,” Rodriguez said “I’m a new man, I want to be part of society, a productive person.”

At a time when jobs are plentiful nationwide and in South Florida, where the unemployment rate is among the lowest in the country, job seekers with a criminal background face a difficult journey in rejoining the workforce.

READ MORE: A consequence of a low jobless rate: not enough qualified workers in South Florida

The Prison Policy Initiative estimates that 60% of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. Even when they do find employment, jobs are often low-paying and short-term.

Most employers do not typically hire those with a criminal record. A 2021 survey found only 41% of business leaders said their organization had hired such employees.

Travis McGilvary, the director of employer partnerships at Better Together, said when he’s trying to find employers for the fairs, he looks for companies that are “background friendly.”

“What we’re looking for is employers that are at least open to having conversations with job-seekers that might have a [criminal] background,” McGilvary said, “We’re looking for employers that might provide interviews or even make job offers right there.”

Better Together collaborates with local churches to host the events. It identifies as a faith-based organization, but the job fairs are open to all job-seekers and employers. Better Together hosted 12 job fairs last week, ten held in Florida. The others were in Kentucky and Washington, D.C.

Last Tuesday, at the entrance of a large room at Miami Vineyard Community Church, there was an "opportunity board." It was filled with job openings from companies, but also featured organizations offering social services like health screenings, rehabilitation services, and expungement programs.

At least once an hour, the chime of a bell rang through the air. Participants got to ring a silver “Opportunity Bell” when they got one step closer to finding a job, whether it was an interview or a job offer.

“It’s a win-win for both sides, it’s beautiful,” McGilvary said.

'Share Your Story' board at the Second Chance job fair in Miami on April 16, 2024.
Anita Li
'Share your story' board at nonprofit Better Together's job fair in Miami.

McGilvary added that these fairs offer employment, but also help employers fill vacant positions. Florida has a labor shortage, so it benefits companies to expand their applicant pool to people with a criminal background. Florida had 518,000 job openings in January 2024, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Adriana Rosero, a Talent Acquisition Specialist at Pollo Tropical, agrees. She was at the fair helping attendees apply for jobs at the South Florida-based restaurant chain. She says the restaurants only mandate background checks for managerial positions.

“We’ve had almost 50 [people] sign up, we are excited to invite them to come for an interview with us,” Rosero said. “We need to give them the opportunity. These are individuals that want to work, that deserve a second chance.”

Anita Li is a Spring and Summer 2024 intern for WLRN. She is about to enter her last year at Northwestern University in Evanston, IL, where she studies journalism.
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