(Photo: FreeWorld)

A pathway for returning citizens to living-wage trucking industry careers

Two nonprofits collaborate to scale their efforts and train people with histories of incarceration

“At the age of 15, I was arrested for a first-degree felony aggravated robbery and sent to a juvenile prison for 12 years. My beginnings were filled with poverty, violence, and abuse.” That fraught start is the very personal reason behind Jason Wang‘s decision to found FreeWorld, a nonprofit that trains and places people with criminal histories into living-wage careers in the trucking industry.

Jason Wang, founder and CEO, FreeWorld

“My life’s mission is to really provide opportunities for returning citizens to get a legitimate second chance after they’ve been released from prison,” explains Wang, who is also CEO.

After being released early from the prison system, Wang earned a full scholarship and two master’s degrees.

He says, “I became the first person in my family to graduate with a college degree. But, even with two master’s degrees, whenever I would go and interview for a job, they would only see me for the worst thing I’d ever done.”

Launched in 2021, FreeWorld provides online training that paves the way for people to earn their CDL-Class A. The students work at their own pace while receiving instruction online, but Wang notes, typically, this portion of the training can be finished in about six weeks.

Once the participants have their permits, they access their hands-on learning with one of the organization’s trucking school partners.

Scaling Up Through Partnership with the Center for Employment Opportunities

“Over the past three years, we’ll have helped over 2,000 people get into careers that pay $50,000 or more on a yearly basis,” says Wang. “The question then becomes ‘Two thousand people is great, but how do we scale our impact up?’”

A partnership with Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) aims to increase the participation numbers. CEO serves people with histories of incarceration in 31 cities in 12 states.

“Over 600,000 people come home from incarceration every year and really struggle with many things. One is employment,” says Dane Worthington, director of mobility foundations at CEO.

Dane Worthington, director of mobility foundations, CEO

He explains the first step for returning citizens who come to CEO seeking resources. “We connect people immediately to a transitional job. We become their employer of record. We work on their employability skills with the ultimate goal of placing them into full-time, gainful employment.”

Worthington continues, “We give everybody an immediate job. We run W2 wages for every person in our program, every single day. It’s that immediate financial support which gives people what they need to take care of their basic needs while managing their coming home and reintegrating into society. It’s a lifeline. It’s a steppingstone.”

The trucking-related partnership came about as CEO recognizes FreeWorld’s online model and students’ success rate earning their permits. Wang says, “CEO has this incredible infrastructure. They have been the largest reentry provider in the entire country.”

“We initially launched a pilot [last year] with them with a goal of being able to serve 50 people. And we reached that very, very quickly – and 70% of the people that they sent us ended up getting their permits. It’s already having a significant material and tangible impact on the people that they’re currently serving,” he adds.

Worthington points out the trucking industry is a good fit for the people CEO serves, “It’s generally a high-demand job occupation. It is utilized in a number of different industry sectors, not just transportation. The wages tend to be high. It’s a graying workforce, so you have a lot of people retiring from the industry, which creates more demand. It’s relatively open to people with criminal convictions, which makes job placement easier.

“And it’s a credential that if you have the basic qualifications, you can get in four to six weeks. You don’t need to go back to college and get a two- or four-year degree. It’s a widely recognized credential. It’s portable. Every employer knows what it is. There’s no confusion.”

The feedback from participants is positive, according to Worthington. “People really like the instructors. They like the format. They like that they can take classes multiple times. They can get better feedback, extra help.

“We also get data from our participants in terms of their test scores. So, we can – from the CEO side – do more targeted interventions to see who’s struggling. It allows us to do our work better and we can really concentrate our efforts and, ultimately, help people.”

(Photo: FreeWorld)

Prior to the FreeWorld partnership, CEO already had a trucking pathway in place, but Worthington says the numbers are showing greater success since the start of the collaboration. “[Before] FreeWorld, about 75% of people that started would get their license at the end. Now we’re up to 85%.

“Before, we were placing about 70% of people into a relevant job and now that’s bumped up 10% also. All the metrics moving in the right way, potentially allows us to expand how many people we offer the initial opportunity.”

Worthington adds, “Next year we’re hoping to do 220 trucking school enrollments. We want every person to go through FreeWorld.”

‘It’s always been a peace of mind – just driving’

Joby Frayre recently obtained his CDL-Class A last month after completing his training at Masters Trucking Academy in the Los Angeles area. Frayre, age 51, is currently employed by CEO doing freeway maintenance while hunting for his first trucking job.

Arrested in 2001 on a felony charge, Frayre was sentenced to 50 years to life. After serving 23 years, he was released from prison in June 2023.

He says, “I came across CEO when someone that lived with me in prison told me, ‘Look, go to this place.’ His sister actually works at CEO, so he said, ‘We’ll call her and she’ll give you information on how to get into CEO.’”

Frayre was immediately interested in the CDL trucking pathway, “I’ve always liked to drive. That was one of my things. I’ve always liked driving. I’m always a solitary person.”

Joby Frayre, FreeWorld and CEO participant and holder of CDL-Class A

He says he actually obtained his permit on his own and was then connected to the Masters Trucking Academy with program costs being paid for by FreeWorld.

During his conversation with WorkingNation, Frayre makes a point to give props to the people who have supported him at FreeWorld, CEO, and Masters Trucking Academy. Regarding FreeWorld staff, he says, “They were there from the beginning. They didn’t really push me, per se, but they were there. They were calling me, ‘Hey, have you done this? Have you done that?’ Basically saying, ‘You want this, you have to do it.’”

‘We have criminalized poverty in the United States’

“Recidivism is complex, but one of the main variables is gainful employment to be able to support oneself,” says Worthington. “So, CEO comes in. You don’t need to have any formal work experience. You don’t need to have educational attainment. We don’t care what your charge was.”

Wang explains it’s important to understand the challenges returning citizens face, “Fifty percent of people who are released end up recidivating within the first year alone. Fifty percent of those people are unemployed within that first year. And if somebody is employed, they’re earning approximately $10,000 in total for that first year, which really goes to show that if you don’t have the ability to put food on the table, to be able to take care of yourself, your loved ones, all that other stuff – what other opportunity do you have?

“I think that the general public has this really strong misunderstanding of how crime happens, why people end up going back to the prison system. It’s not because people are inherently evil. It’s because we have criminalized poverty in the United States.”

Meanwhile, Frayre is looking forward to getting his trucking career underway, “For me, it’s always been a peace of mind – just driving. Just being on the road. And, of course, being financially stable. But for me, it’s always that peace of mind – that I’m in control.”

He wants potential employers to know that he’s ready to work. “I’m very technical when it comes to paperwork. I make sure everything is right.”

Frayre adds, “I do take pride in being responsible. I can be trusted with the [truck’s] load.”