Statistically, you're more likely to meet a unicorn than someone else with a background exactly like Darnell Epps'. Reading his history in chronological order is like watching a person evolve from a vulnerable and uncertain state into a capable and self-assured individual. Epps went to jail when he was 20. He served 17.5 years in a state penitentiary in upstate New York. While there he got his GED, then started taking college courses, worked as a law librarian and served as legal advisor to other inmates in state and federal appellate courts. He got out in 2017, and graduated from Cornell University with a bachelor of arts in government in 2020. He applied and got accepted to Yale Law School, and started coursework in 2021 (with an expectation to graduate in 2024). In 2022, he began coursework to earn his certificate as a CNC machinist from Lincoln Technical Institute and intends to use this experience to found a skills training and workforce development platform company. All of this begs the question: When does he sleep? For Epps, not until the manufacturing skills gap is history and the sector aligns its talent strategies with the needs of underemployed and at-risk communities across the country. Since leaving prison, he has spent much of his time promoting the education of incarcerated individuals to prepare them for life on the outside. He has also advocated for a more thoughtful approach to prospective employee outreach in manufacturing. "There's aligned interest with communities that have faced historic levels of underemployment and unemployment," Epps says. "We can provide skills and training programs in those communities and populations that are experiencing employment shocks," he adds, noting that he views the labor shortages in manufacturing and industry as a significant opportunity to address the opportunity divides faced by Americans in disadvantaged communities – both urban and rural – that have historically had limited opportunities for solid, stable jobs that build long-term community prosperity. "What I am working on are tangible solutions to rapidly get people skilled and qualified for good jobs in manufacturing and industry," he says. "These skills will make people self-sufficient and provide for a lot of upward mobility." Ideally, by providing underprivileged communities with a shot at that upward mobility through skills training, Epps believes that this approach, deployed widely, would have a measurable impact on closing the manufacturing skills gap. Achieving these goals, however, will require a new recruitment paradigm, he says. "We have to have recruitment solutions that don't follow the old map that trade schools have used to traditionally recruit workers for manufacturing," Epps says. "We need to be more proactive," he adds, noting that instead of pushing people into trade schools (which can be costly and typically doesn't include a direct line to a job opening), "having a learning program that's accelerating people into the workforce is one way to align the interest in educational programming [among disinvested communities] with that of the manufacturing industry at large." The best examples of this, according to Epps, are paid apprenticeship programs, which connect the dots in a way that most trade or career schools do not. "There are some paid apprenticeship programs like ApprenticeNYC or other programs throughout the country where people don't take out loans and people can be paid to learn these skills and then be guaranteed a job on the back end once they earn their credentials," he says. Though Epps' experience began in Brooklyn and now orbits around New York City and the Acela corridor, he's quick to note that this approach isn't just for residents in urban areas. "We need to think about not just recruiting folks from big cities but looking at areas that have been impacted by employment shocks," he says. "You think of the coal industry and power plant closures in eastern Kentucky... We have to have a socially responsible way to go about recruiting workers and identify areas where there's huge amount of talent and untapped potential." Residents in these areas looking for a route out of generational poverty first need to be educated about what manufacturing education can potentially do for them. "There needs to be a public education campaign that's targeted at specific populations that would be open to a job in manufacturing and that also educates them about the benefits of a career path," Epps says. "You think about the average salary in manufacturing workers... I think in 2019 [it] was $85,000, and manufacturing output in 2019 I think was 12% of total economic output, so over $2 trillion," he adds. "We have to leverage that and be more creative about how we recruit folks and who we recruit. Tapping into diverse worker pools is a way of doing that."
Darnell Epps has spent much of his time promoting the education of incarcerated individuals as a means to prepare them for life on the outside. He's also advocated for a more thoughtful approach to prospective employee outreach in manufacturing.