Where Ex-cons Get The Tools Of A Trade From Woodworker

Craftsman Furnishes A Future For The Jobless

April 28, 1997|By William E. Thompson Jr. | William E. Thompson Jr.,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Greg Dively is one woodworker who really goes against the grain.

Nine years ago, he borrowed $25,000 against his house, left his job, got a table saw, hired two men and started his own cabinetmaking business. Since then he has refused to leave a rough East Baltimore neighborhood. And he's hired workers no one else would touch: former prisoners with violent records.

Now Dively is trying something even more unusual. As part of an agreement with Empower Baltimore Management Corp., the owner of G.D. Laminates Ltd. will train people as cabinetmakers and then stand idly by as most of the trainees go to work for his competition.

Dively, 43, said there's an overall shortage of quality labor in his industry, and he wants to alleviate it, especially since his North Chester Street business is now entering the peak part of the year.

Additionally, he and other companies that participate in empowerment zone projects will qualify for a $3,000 federal wage-tax credit per trainee hired and could qualify for a similar state credit of up to $1,500, said Michael Preston, an Empower Baltimore spokesman.

Dively said he will be reimbursed the $2,400 it will cost to train each worker.

But mostly, Dively said, he's doing it because he likes challenges and thinks he can help.

"Everything's been booming, and a lot of shops are having problems finding laminators. I think I can teach anybody who wants to learn. Any one of these guys will be able to do what needs to be done in any of those shops," he said.

A year ago, he approached Empower Baltimore officials with his idea. They approved it and asked for jobs for at least 10 trainees; he lined up jobs for more than 30. Dively said he expects the first two to begin his 13-week program today. .

Though the agreement stipulates that those taking on the trainees must hire residents from an empowerment zone, the workers will come primarily from the empowerment zone of East Baltimore. The positions must be full time, pay more than $6.50 an hour and include health benefits, and not displace any full-time employees.

"Our main focus is to create jobs, and a program like this is exactly what the empowerment zone program is all about," Preston said.

Preston said Dively's approach is uncommon. Most employers want to keep workers they train.

Eileen Rix, personnel manager at one of Dively's competitors, L.U.I. Corp., is glad Dively will do what other employers won't.

"There are so many people out there who aren't trained, and when you have to train them it slows down production," Rix said. It's frustrating when her company trains new workers only to see them leave for other jobs or decide it's not the kind of work they want, she added.

Rix said her company could add 10 of Dively's trainees.

Dively is confident he can help people, if only because of his success in dealing with some men who were once not model citizens.

Fourteen of his 29 workers have spent time in the prerelease unit of the state correctional system, a labor pool Dively said he has drawn from for eight years.

Butch Madden came to Dively from there nearly five years ago.

While imprisoned at the Maryland House of Corrections in Jessup, Madden said he spent five years getting on-the-job training in the wood shop and mill. After making his way into work-release, he discovered his record made it difficult to find work.

"I just wanted a job. I went to 20 or 30 places for interviews, but no one would hire me because I had been incarcerated," Madden said.

Dively was willing to take him on.

"It made me feel good that there was a guy who was willing to give me a chance," Madden said. "He told me that what I did with the opportunity was up to me. He absolutely made a difference for me. He goes out of his way to help people; most businesses won't do that."

He now supervises the mill section, where incoming wood is cut into more manageable pieces for building cabinets.

The new trainees won't come from the correctional system, but Dively said it wouldn't matter if they did. He said he doesn't care what his employees' backgrounds are; the only issue is what kind of workers they turn out to be.

"I judge a person on how he talks to me and how he handles himself. I've never had any problems. I've never been threatened. Just because a guy's screwed up one time doesn't mean they're a bad person forever," Dively said.

As is the case with some of his other hires, Dively said he expects some of the trainees to wash out of the program.

"I've had a lot of guys through here -- some success stories and some failures. But I can teach them. And I plan on doing a lot more than 10. It's our reputation these people are going to be hired on, so we have to do a good job," Dively said.

Pub Date: 4/28/97

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