From Prison to Apprenticeship: Joshua Johnson’s journey to reenter the Wisconsin workforce
Joshua Johnson had used the same deodorant for 10 years. In fact, he pretty much used the same everything for 10 years, like clothes, toothpaste, snack food, and a prison bunk.
Which is why, when he was released from Winnebago Correctional Center in 2005, after serving a decade-long prison sentence for armed robbery, and his parents drove him to a Wal-Mart for the first time, he was completely overwhelmed. There, on the shelves, were dozens of different deodorants to choose from.
“For the past 10 years I didn’t make decisions for myself,” Johnson said. “I’m better at it now, but when I got out, it was tough. I went in as a kid.”
While the decisions surrounding toiletries and menu choices were paralyzing to Johnson, they were relatively inconsequential when compared to the other questions facing his life: like where to live, who to hang out with, how to fall in love, and, perhaps most importantly, what career to pursue? Johnson was a self-described “27-year-old without any skills.” He didn’t have any confidence and had not put any thought into a career.
Sure, he had a job at a lumberyard in De Pere and a friend in the area to stay with: both holdovers from his time on prison work release. But that job was short-lived when he requested a raise from his lower prison pay to one commensurate with that of his civilian coworkers and was denied. Johnson immediately started looking for another job.
Through a friend from prison, Johnson soon found employment in Milwaukee loading construction equipment into trailers. At $10 per hour, the pay was a few dollars more than the lumberyard for similar labor. It was there that an acquaintance—who was part of the local Ironworkers union and its Joint Apprenticeship Committee—first encouraged Johnson to look beyond his workaday job. He bluntly asked Johnson if he had considered doing something other than loading trucks.
Up until that point, Johnson had not. Despite being out of prison for seven months at that time, and notching a number of important milestones such as a stable place to live, reconnecting with friends and family, getting engaged, and, above all else, holding steadfast to his resolution to never return to prison, he still shied away from the discouraging prospect of post-incarceration career-building because of his 10-year work history gap and a criminal record to boot.
“When you’re released from prison, you feel as if everyone knows you’ve been to prison,” Johnson said. “It’s like you have a scarlet letter or the word ‘prisoner’ tattooed on your forehead.”
However, when a friend of the family also began turning Johnson toward a job in construction, the idea finally took hold. After hearing that Walsh Construction Co. was hiring laborers for the Marquette Interchange project, a multi-million-dollar road reconstruction project, Johnson visited the company’s local Milwaukee office to apply.
While he was filling out his application in the reception area, three young office workers entered the room and occupied a desk no more than five feet from Johnson. They collectively thumbed through a large stack of applications, making a point to announce the criminal records of each applicant they reviewed.
Johnson sat by unsettled, having arrived at the criminal history portion of the application where he planned to pen in “will discuss at interview,” as he had been advised in prison.
It was at that point, one of the young office workers stated that he had “never hire someone who had been to prison.” To which a man seated nearby, Project Superintendent Jay Titus, replied, “Not me, if someone is desperate enough to steal, they’re desperate enough to come to work every day to make money.”
Relieved, Johnson quietly filled out the remainder of his application. Titus’ words even prompted Johnson to disclose his full criminal history on the application.
“I thought it was a great opportunity to share and not be judged,” Johnson said.
Johnson submitted his application to the receptionist where she tucked his application at the bottom of a pile of no less than 200 applicants, and he felt his prospects diminishing. So, he spoke up and indicated that he wanted to talk to Titus, who had lent renewed optimism to his job search.
“I want to say thank you because it’s guys like you who give guys like me a chance,” Johnson said. Titus looked confused and Johnson clarified that he was referring to his comment about prisoners. Titus slid Johnson’s application out from the bottom of the pile and asked him to explain his incarceration.
Josh detailed his crimes, then went on to talk about how he was turning his life around, was engaged, employed, and never wanted to go back to prison. He even offered to start that same day and said he had his work boots in his car. Titus declined the offer but directed Johnson to contact the Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership-Building Industry Group and Skilled Trades Employment Program (WRTP-BIG STEP) and enroll in the Transportation Alliance for New Solutions (TRANS) program, a Department of Transportation-run program that provides reimbursements to employers that hire its graduates.
Johnson called WRTP-BIG STEP on his way out of the office and enrolled in the next TRANS class, which was to start the following month. Two days later, Johnson got a call from Walsh Construction Co. to report for work at 6 a.m. Monday. Titus gave Johnson two weeks to prove himself worthy of becoming a member of the Laborers Local 113 Union and a construction craft laborer apprentice, registered with the Wisconsin Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards (BAS).
Johnson completed the apprenticeship program and went on to work five years for Walsh Construction Co. before embarking on a career shift that led him into civil service with DWD’s Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards, where he was an apprenticeship training representative in 2014. Two years later, Johnson became a section chief with the division, and in 2019, he became the director of Wisconsin Apprenticeship.
His history and apprenticeship experiences fueled his passion for second chances. His firsthand knowledge of how apprenticeships can change lives led him to become a champion for the very agency that spring boarded his post-incarceration career.
Since becoming director of BAS in 2019, Johnson has leveraged his position to create opportunities for prisoners reentering the workforce through apprenticeship by focusing resources on growing apprenticeship programs in partnership with the Department of Corrections, fostering the growth of pre-apprenticeship programs to prepare re-entering offenders for registered apprenticeships and establishing grant programs that provide supportive services to individuals in the same position he found himself upon his release in 2005.
Most recently, Johnson was named the Vice President of the National Association of State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors (NASTAD), an organization made up of 31 State and Territorial Apprenticeship Directors.
“I have come a long way,” Johnson said. “I’m now in a position to impact the lives of those who are incarcerated by building DWD apprenticeship programs where they can receive relevant and high-quality training prior to their release.”
Johnson also oversaw the creation of five Apprenticeship Navigator positions across Wisconsin. Navigators connect prospective apprentices with program sponsors and assist in navigating the complexities of the selection process. Additionally, under his leadership, Wisconsin Apprenticeship System has strengthened its bridge program, a direct talent pipeline linking high school youth apprentices to careers in registered apprenticeship to become skilled and credentialed journey workers. And it has expanded the Certified Pre-Apprenticeship program, a collection of training programs across the state that help job seekers gain the necessary skills to become registered apprentices.
Johnson never imagined that he would be in the Director of the Bureau of Apprenticeship Standards for the state of Wisconsin when he signed his apprenticeship contract in 2005.
“Securing sustainable employment upon release from prison is vitally important to reduce recidivism and, more importantly, reduce crime in our neighborhoods,” Johnson said. “DWD’s apprenticeship programs create opportunities for men and women, including those who’ve been incarcerated, and help them build a sense of self-worth.”