Richard Palmer, president of Nehemiah Manufacturing, was on a mission. He didn’t know how or when it would happen; he just knew that it would.
He wanted to provide jobs for people in Cincinnati who were unable to find them. He secured a location in a blighted area, talked to his former colleagues at Procter & Gamble, and took over manufacturing some of the brands they wanted to shed.
When Palmer opened the doors of Nehemiah (the company is named after the Old Testament prophet whose mission was to bring safety, commerce and community back to the city of Jerusalem), one of the first persons who came looking for a job was a former felon. Palmer hired him immediately. It worked out so well that currently 90% of his workforce of 130 is comprised of returning citizens, which is the accepted term for former felons.
“The loyalty of these workers and their productivity is just amazing,” says Palmer. “It’s been a great business decision with a high rate of retention, which is especially important given the labor shortage.”
Labor shortages also led manufacturers in Elkhart, Ind., where many recreational vehicles are made, to not only employ former felons, but to employ felons still serving their sentences.
While offering opportunities to returning citizens has been going on for years, more programs have been created recently in the continuing effort to fill vacant jobs. Many state agencies and companies are letting this group know they are welcome.
One way to show returning citizens that they are welcome is to stop asking them about their past. Many states—29 to be exact—have passed “ban the box” laws which pushed employers to delay criminal background checks until later in the application process. This way potential candidates were not immediately dismissed.
Cities too are becoming more active. Detroit Mayor Steve Duggan recently said at a briefing that his city has been very active in this area, as Detroit-area companies have placed more than 500 returning citizens into jobs. He singled out Sakthi Automotive, which has hired nearly 200 individuals in unionized auto parts jobs.
Industry is in on the act as well. Trade groups, including the National Retail Federation, National Restaurant Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are backing a “Getting Talent Back to Work” pledge, created by the Society for Human Resource Management, based on the passage of the First Step Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in December 2018.
These industry groups along with other companies, and government bodies have publicly stated their intentions to recruit and hire people with criminal records. The broad range of groups signing this pledge reflects the more expansive opportunities being given to returning citizens. While construction and trucking were the first industries to hire this talent, many others are joining in, including Johns Hopkins Medicine, which has hired hundreds of people with records for jobs involving patient care.
Why has this reached the level of a national initiative? Part of it has to do with numbers, as almost 700,000 people are released from prison each year. That’s a lot of potential workers.
But even more than the concept of accessing a largely untapped labor pool, Palmer feels that people need to be given a second chance. Explaining how life-altering this is for employees and the business, he says, “The rewards over the past five years have been amazing. In this group, we find rare diamonds—some of the hardest working people we’ve ever seen. In proving themselves, these employees become fiercely loyal—insistent on high quality; positive teamers who help each other; hard chargers who self-sacrifice for the success of all.”
Having the strong business metrics to accompany the mission, Palmer approached other businesses and encouraged them to address the issue. The result was an organization called Beacon of Hope, a partnership of private employers, nonprofits, legal services and religious organizations. The group offers a blueprint for area companies to learn how to recruit returning citizens. Over 80 companies joined and to date over 500 people have been hired.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. To truly understand the effect of these opportunities, you need only to consider the words of one employee of Nehemiah, who said that if it weren’t for this job, he might be back in jail or dead.