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Staffing Management: In the Shadows

Stephenie Overman   1/1/2008

Vol. 4, No. 1

Spotlighting an overlooked source of hundreds of thousands of potential employees -- former prisoners.

If you're searching for employees who "will run through a brick wall" for the company, Keith Bennett has a source of talent for you. But it might not be the first place you think to look. Bennett doesn't work for an employment agency. Surprisingly enough, he's a program director at Goodwill Industries International of Greater Detroit.

Goodwill helps prepare former prisoners--as well as young people coming out of foster care, who also face barriers to employment --for jobs. Detroit is one of nearly a hundred Goodwill Industries International locations that offers training, job coaching and placement services to ex-offenders.

A large chunk of the nation's potential labor pool, more than 2.2 million Americans, is in prison or jail. The U.S. Justice Department estimates that 650,000 people are released from prison each year, and about three out of four people leaving state prison were there for non-violent crimes.

Health care, education, finance and security industries have restrictions on hiring ex-convicts who have committed certain types of crime, such as sexual abuse or embezzlement. Many other employers are reluctant to hire even nonviolent former offenders because of concerns about theft, drug abuse or other criminal activity.

But "our guys have made those mistakes [already]," Bennett says, and are motivated to stay out of trouble. "These guys will run through a brick wall for the employer because the employer has taken a chance on them. These guys will work hard. They're conscientious," he says. "They know another opportunity is not just waiting for them." With assistance from Goodwill, many former prisoners have also received training to help them re-enter the community and the workforce.

In Detroit, eligible ex-prisoners--certain sex offenders are excluded--can receive an academic assessment, training in areas such as social skills and computers, and help with housing, clothing and reintegration with their families. They are placed in a temporary part-time job at Goodwill where theywork for a maximum of 12 weeks. Bennett says the ex-cons are taught how to "think like an employer," to see the risk of hiring them from a boss's point of view. "We bring employers in to talk to them, so they can give it to them straight" about what assets are required in today's workplace.

Many of the ex-offenders have minimal job skills, he says, but some have learned trades in prison training programs.

Inmate to Workmate

Aramark, the food, hospitality, facility management and uniform services company, hires ex-offenders. It also gives prisoners culinary arts training at the correctional facilities in the five states where the company provides meals, commissary services, laundry management and facilities management. This Inmate to Workmate program starts with a 12-week "kitchen basics" course, says Tracy Tomkiewicz, regional vice president for state systems. After that, prisoners move into an eight-week retail program that prepares them to work in entry-level foodservice positions.

"They get certificates to take with them on the way out the door," Tomkiewicz says, noting that "there's always recruiting going on in food service."

Strapped by tight budgets, state and county correctional facility clients asked Aramark for help with vocational training, says Cheryl Kaplan, senior director of training and organizational development. "The program adds no extra cost to taxpayers and ultimately benefits the local community with an increase in the number of trained workers. It's a win for clients, inmates, communities and Aramark."

The goal is not necessarily placement with Aramark itself. In fact, ex-offenders aren't eligible to work in the Corrections Service division. But the company has hired more than 2,000 ex-offenders in other areas of business, such as laundry service.

Osceola County Jail in Kissimmee, Fla., not only takes advantage of the Inmate to Workmate program but, with Aramark's help, it held a job fair last year for 40 pre-screened prisoners in the jail's recreational area. "Offering nonviolent inmates the opportunity for a fresh start upon their release is our way of helping to keep them from coming back to our county jail," says Jail Director Dennis Dowd.

Seasonal Fair

Late last year, Sheilah O'Mahony, an employment supervisor for UPS in San Francisco, used an annual job fair for ex-cons to find seasonal, mostly entry-level workers for her company.

"We have not targeted ex-offenders; they are applicants just like anyone else," O'Mahony says. UPS does background checks on everyone, and its policy states that individuals with felony convictions are not automatically disqualified from obtaining a position that does not interface with the public.

"There are so many laws governing the hiring process," O'Mahony says. "We can't [refuse to] interview someone if they disclose [a conviction]. It would be illegal." O'Mahony sees "pluses and minuses to hiring" people who have been in prison, but "if we ostracize that group of people, we're going to hurt ourselves by eliminating so many people from the pool. We look at it on a case-by-case basis." The Northern California Service League, which set up the job fair, is a San Francisco nonprofit social service agency that provides life skills training, anger management, substance abuse counseling, and job development and placement. "We do assessments, we see what they need, such as Social Security cards, a place to live, clothing, transportation. There are a lot of components besides getting them emotionally ready," Executive Director Shirley Melnicoe says.

"There are certain jobs that you've got to be very careful with [and] other jobs where it doesn't really matter, like a dish washer," she says. "It depends on the individual; that's true with anybody you would hire."

Melnicoe is not only versed in how to get ex-offenders into the workplace, she's outspoken about why the goal is so important.

"You're three times less likely to go back to prison if you have a job," she says. When ex-convicts have done their time, "they've paid society. Now it's time to give them an opportunity. When ex-offenders can't find employment, it affects all family members." Echoing Bennett of Goodwill, Melnicoe says, "our clients are probably more grateful to be given a chance."

Stephenie Overman is editor of STAFFING MANAGEMENT.

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