Commercial motor coach companies offer employment opportunities for ex-offenders

motor coach drivers

Alicia Nolan went from being a lifer in prison to a life as a motor coach driver.

Formerly incarcerated people often become discouraged in their search for employment, facing obstacles that may be hard to overcome. While many jobs are closed to them, a tight job market and new attitudes are forcing change among certain companies and industries. Like motor coach drivers. They’re in high demand. And many companies are eager to hire people who have records.

Take Alicia Nolan, for example. She works for Bauer’s Intelligent Transportation in the San Francisco Bay Area driving buses for Gillead Pharmaceuticals. Yes, those buses. The ones that take tech workers from the Silicon Valley to San Francisco and other places where passengers live.

Her current job is an extreme contrast to what took her to prison in the late 1980s. Nolan was a lifer, incarcerated for 24 years in Chowchilla, Calif., after being convicted of second-degree homicide as the driver of a car carrying a drive-by shooter.

But that was long ago, and Nolan has a new life. After gaining parole in 2013, she started driving for Google, her first job out of prison. The company provided her with a brand new Prius, and she delivered packages on the Google campus in Mountain View.

Get paid while training to be a motor coach driver

Her next job was with MV Transportation, then Gray Line, and after that she assumed her current position with Bauer, where her title is professional chauffeur/trainer. Her company offers a full training program for motor coach drivers, and they get paid during their training.

“You can get a class C permit by going to the DMV and taking the written test. But then you go to Bauer’s or MV Transportation, any company that has a training program, they will train you. You come with a clean driving record and permit, you get training pay rates when you’re in training. It can take anywhere from four to six weeks,” she says.

But it’s not easy driving a big motor coach. “After four to six weeks if you can’t do it, you’re not going to get it. Driving a big motor coach is really hard, and there’s a lot of things to learn before you drive.”

Nolan doesn’t feel that people with criminal records face barriers in the bus driving business, especially in San Francisco.

“They will hire an ex-felon before they will hire anybody, because they know they’re going to be at work. They know that they can rely on us,” Nolan says. “And Bauer’s will hire them. All the transportation companies will hire them. I went from making $12.75 at Google to $28.88 an hour, and when I do overtime I make $43 an hour.”

Good job for people in reentry

Being a commercial motor coach driver is a good job for someone in reentry, according to Nolan.

“It gives you some good customer service experience. For me I found a way that I can give back to the community every day. I come in contact with people every day. I have had some of the same passengers for 4-1/2 years. I’ll see my old passengers on campus, and they’ll wave at me,” she says. “People drive for different reasons. I went to prison as a driver, but at least I’m now driving precious cargo. Every mile I drive is dedicated to my victim.”

While being trained by motor coach companies may be one way to become a commercial bus driver, it’s certainly not the only one. Workforce Development Boards, for example, connect people to a variety of types of training and, in some cases, pay for that training including for professional drivers.

Located around the country, these organizations are funded through the U.S. Dept. of Labor and direct funding to workforce development.

Charles Brown, III, business services representative and reentry coordinator for the Workforce Development Board of Contra Costa County in California, says that his WDB connects people to transportation logistics training for professional Class A and Class B drivers.

Shortage of drivers means more opportunities for jobs

“Right now we don’t have enough drivers in the marketplace. We can’t train them fast enough,” he says. “Our training is eight weeks, and the trainers need to be on our eligibility list. I deal with fair chance employers and help organizations become trainers. We want to make sure that the person is a returning resident and that they can clear licensing.”

While many transport companies are willing to hire formerly incarcerated drivers, various state laws prevent people with certain kinds of felony convictions, like vehicular manslaughter, from getting commercial licenses.

The industry, however, is welcoming. And it provides excellent employment opportunities with decent wages.

There are also opportunities for those who might be more interested in driving a truck than a bus. San Francisco’s Mochary Foundation pays for truck driving training for those who been incarcerated. You can find out more by visiting the foundation’s website.

 

Seth Sundberg used incarceration experience to create Prison Bars

Prison Bars

Seth Sundberg, founder of Prison Bars (center).

A growing number of inmates and those in reentry are using skills they learned in prison and in post-release programs to start their own businesses. But it’s not easy.

Just ask Seth Sundberg, founder and CEO of Prison Bars, a company that launched commercial production of its “criminally delicious” snack bars in late September.

The former professional basketball player – for the Los Angeles Lakers and 10 European teams – and mortgage company branch manager was convicted of tax fraud and served five years in prison where he worked in the kitchen.

One day he took out a box of chicken labeled “unfit for human consumption,” an experience that ultimately inspired him to search for healthy things to eat and create nutritious handmade granola bars that he sold to other prisoners. They were so popular that Sundberg not only made a fair amount of pocket money but once released thought they might have appeal on the outside as well.

Defy Ventures offered support system

Fortunately for him, about the time he left prison New York-headquartered Defy Ventures was expanding to San Francisco. This entrepreneurship development program works with formerly incarcerated individuals (and now works inside prisons as well) to help them create businesses.

While some participants need to develop the skills to run a business, for Sundberg the organization benefited him in other ways.

“I had the skill set to do the business, but had it not been for the support system at Defy and the accountability system of Defy, I wouldn’t have been able to do it,” he says. “It’s not easy to come back to life and repair relationships and everything and start a new business. Without that support and the structure of Defy this would not have happened.”

But happen it did, and now Prison Bars, which manufactures snack bars that are non-GMO and gluten free, has eight employees in its day-to-day operations. Five of them, including Sundberg, were incarcerated, and most of them he knew from prison.

After graduating from Defy in October 2015, Sundberg and a team began to make Prison Bars by hand in a commercial kitchen in San Francisco. The company also took tons of pre-orders, did events and sold T-shirts and coffee mugs to get the word out.

And the word is getting out.

“We have commitments from Bi-Rite Grocers to be in a couple of their stores,” Sundberg says. “Our primary market is local tech companies that provide all kinds of snacks for their employees and want to have a social impact. We have commitments from Google and are talking with some other large tech companies as well. That’s our primary model. We will get into retail distributions as a secondary piece.”

Need to be patient

One of the biggest challenges Sundberg is facing is the need to be patient and not grow his company too fast, but patience is something one develops in prison, he says.

One of his goals is to educate people on the issues related to incarceration, and that takes time. “Part of this is raising awareness among people who may not have been involved with incarceration. There are a lot of people who are receptive, but there’s still a lot of pushback as well,” he says. “We want to be a catalyst to start conversations.”

Now that the business is in commercial production, the next step for Prison Bars is to raise additional funding. He’s already taken out two Kiva zip loans, partly for the exposure that the organization offers.

Sundberg is currently creating bigger fundraising plans, although venture capital is not in the mix at this point. “We’re going to take on private investors. We took on two small private investors, and they’re going to get involved with the next round of funding and introduce us to more people,” he says. His goal is to expand inventory and develop new flavors.

Tips for budding reentry entrepreneurs

Sundberg has advice for those coming out of prison who may want to start their own businesses.

“One of Defy’s key points is to prove your concept quickly and become profitable quickly. A lot of guys inside have a lot of time to think and have a lot of grand visions, and those are great, but they are for company number two,” he says.

Beyond that, “Stay with it. Stay humble. Nothing is easy. The reentry piece is especially tough. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. The only way successful reentry occurs is through community. Be vulnerable and let people help you.”