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Tuesday, 17 January 2012 09:20

Reinvesting in social capital: Second chances for former inmates work to grow skilled workforce

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Reinvesting in social capital: Second chances for  former inmates work  to grow skilled workforce PHOTO: Seth Thompson
GRAND RAPIDS — Companies in West Michigan have been increasingly focusing on how to help ex-criminal offenders, some of the region’s most disadvantaged workers, find a path to meaningful employment.

By providing ex-offenders with training and jobs, companies contribute to solving a social quandary that can otherwise lead to ruined lives and recidivism — not to mention over-sized budgets for the state’s criminal justice system.

The goals for workforce re-entry programs are to facilitate learning, provide work experience and give continued support in helping people coming out of prison to find a way to move forward and contribute to society. Typical workforce re-entry programs focus on offenders whose crimes are of a non-violent or non-sexual nature and who expressed interest in such work-related rehabilitation.

For now, Goodwill Industries and Hope Network are among the few organizations whose initiatives track participants’ progress with regular meetings and counseling sessions.

Workers most often come to companies in two ways: Either companies actively looking to develop a social program will partner with an organization such as Goodwill or Hope Network, or businesses develop relationships with court officers for referrals of ex-offenders who might be a good fit for their operation.

However, questions remain as to what the best practices are in keeping ex-offender programs meaningful, accountable and viable. The re-entry programs aren’t based on any uniform policy, but rather are tailored to the needs of each business. That said, all the programs share a zero-tolerance management strategy, experts told MiBiz.

Ron Jimmerson, a consultant with Cascade Consulting Group and former human resources manager with Cascade Engineering, a company that operates its own re-entry program, said one problem is the way businesses look at ex-offenders.

“It’s really critical that (companies) have a paradigm shift concerning ex-offenders,” he said.

Jimmerson, a re-entry success story, said he believes the business community has a certain responsibility to this cause. If Cascade Engineering hadn’t given him an opportunity, he said he might have found himself in a situation like the thousands who are still cycling though the criminal justice system.

The simple point is to make an impact, Jimmerson said. If every company would be willing to take 5 percent of its workforce as re-entry workers, then that would be a significant help to the community at-large, he said.

Still, some companies are reluctant to take on the inherent risks involved in re-entry programs. People coming out of prison can come with baggage, namely that they might lack reliable transportation and could require various degrees of on-the-job training in soft skills. Moreover, others in the workplace might worry about the safety of working with ex-offenders. Not every company is willing to accept those liabilities.

However, several local companies have taken significant steps in developing a re-entry system. Comprenew, a Grand Rapids-based computer and electronics recycling company, is one business that has had measurable success.

“I’ve come to believe that everyone deserves a chance,” said Kyle Shoemaker, reclaim director at Comprenew. “I feel strongly that everybody deserves an opportunity to make a change in their life.”

Shoemaker works directly with a group of re-entry participants supported through Hope Network and Michigan Rehabilitation Services. Participants go through initial screenings and counseling to determine whether they are ready to commit themselves to a four- to six-week program, during which Comprenew gets to know the individual and provides on-site job assessment.

Shoemaker said the program relies on documentation. Around June 2011, Comprenew decided it was going to commit fully to the program and strengthen the internal tracking of participants. Shoemaker said there were rare cases when a re-entry hire would make excuses for tardiness or low productivity. The company implemented a program to closely evaluate time cards and quota sheets that keep track of individual progress. Shoemaker stressed that while participants are compensated on the state’s dime, maximizing the effect of that compensation is essential to the business because of how much the company relies on re-entry workers.

“(Comprenew) is not out anything. … But when (participants) are here, it’s my job to find a positive way to motivate that individual,” Shoemaker said. “I’m a taxpayer and I’m running a business here. If someone is going to try work the system, I’m not going to play that game.”

Shoemaker said it’s rare for someone to come in just wanting a paycheck for doing next to nothing. When it does happen, he said at least the state then gets the company’s final report, in which case it can decide whether to keep the person in the program.

Shoemaker said around one in 20 cases might result in a final evaluation being negative. For the rest, it’s not atypical for some re-entry cohorts to reach approximately 90-percent placement in long-term positions after Comprenew’s program, though it can vary month-to-month.

Comprenew places some restrictions as to who can be accepted to its program. To minimize risk, they select participants who have not committed violent or sexually related offenses. The company focuses its efforts on pre-screening individuals, and that allows the company to understand each ex-offender’s personal situations and to develop effective ways to encourage personal achievement.

“This is about getting people off the government system and getting them plugged in again,” Shoemaker said. “There is such motivation for people who have been at rock bottom. These individuals can make up some of the best workforce for the jobs they are in.”

Re-entry programs are typically based around some sort of low- to medium-skill labor, which makes up a significant chunk of those hard-to-find positions for employers in the current labor market.

Opening closed doors

Dick Ortega, co-owner of Alternative Mechanical in Grand Rapids, uses his own informal system for helping put ex-offenders to work while also teaching them skills they can take with them after they move on from his company. In his business, he said there is a kind of built-in, organic mentoring system. Ortega said a candidate could be assigned as a general apprentice to a journeyman plumber, and after going to different jobs, a relationship builds. Ortega said that benefits both partners.

“There is very limited access for guys to get out of their situation,” he said. “If you find a guy with a felony, basically the door is closed on them. I don’t like that, and I (hire) a small handful whenever I can and just try to balance that.”

At times, Michigan Works! helps reimburse Alternative Mechanical for half the wages of each ex-offender. But more often, Ortega said the company pays ex-offenders the same as any other hire, based on skill and need, without reimbursement.

Ortega said he would be lying if he said there wasn’t ever a time when he found himself disappointed with the results of someone he hired. For the most part, he has been impressed with the level of commitment most have to bettering their lives, he said.

For Ortega, it’s communication that is usually the hardest part of working with his re-entry hires.

“My base advice is to be patient and try to understand the culture,” he said. “There are always going to be issues in communication. You just have to try and understand where these guys are coming from.”

Sometimes, he said, people who come to work for him have never had the chance to get their hands on anything. The company can struggle to deal with people who have no construction experience or who don’t even know how to read a tape measure, he said. He noted that is just a learning curve in providing a service to community. Even if the workers end up drifting away over time, which Ortega said does happen, they’ve at least taken away some knowledge applicable elsewhere.

Ortega’s system doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of more formal programs, but he said he’s making an effort when there are still companies that make no effort at all. Ortega said as long as he can, he will offer the right person the opportunity to learn. That could be all the chance an ex-offender needs to turn his life around, he said.

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