Hiring felons: Companies warm to idea of employing ex-offenders

Last updated on February 17th, 2022 at 03:55 pm

Roderick Harris will not be coming home from Felmers O. Chaney Correctional Center until 2021, but the 36-year-old Milwaukee resident is ready to get to work.

As the end of his 20-year sentence nears, he is building his resume from prison. Harris, who in 2001 was convicted of felony armed robbery, recently completed a welding training program through Milwaukee Area Technical College, a certification he hopes will offer career advancement potential when he is released.

“By being in prison, we kind of get the jobs everybody else doesn’t want,” Harris said. “We can get a job, but it doesn’t have much growth opportunity; there isn’t the opportunity for real, true advancement. But when you pick up something like welding, it immediately evolves from a job to a career, something that you can raise a family on. You can do this job and keep your head above water.”

The welding training program is new, but if outcomes from a similar MATC re-entry program, which certifies incarcerated students as computer numerical control machine tool operators, are any indication, Harris’ employment outlook is good. Among those students who have been released, 94 percent have found jobs.

Also working in Harris’ favor: a 3.9 GPA in the program and a drive to get back to work.

He says he’s not an outlier among his fellow inmates.

“We’re not just sitting around in a room waiting to go home,” Harris said. “The vast majority of us, we’re preparing to go back home. For some reason, civilians tend to think people are put in prison and that’s it. I can assure you, that’s not the case … My friends and my family and I, we’re all preparing at this time for me to come home. And all we want to do is succeed.”

Designed to open a pipeline of potential workers for the area, the federal Pell Grant-supported MATC program comes at a time when companies are facing persistent workforce shortages and a tight labor market.

Out of necessity, employers are taking a second glance at, and even giving a second chance to, applicants they might have previously dismissed.

And for people like Harris, participating in the MATC program positions him to leave prison with skills to help him find work quickly, which is a proven way to head off recidivism.

Connecting ex-offenders to jobs

As of mid-February, Wisconsin’s state inmate population totaled 23,415, with another 65,556 on parole/probation. National statistics indicate that 95 percent of all state prisoners will be released from prison to return to their communities at some point.

In recent years, efforts have been underway – largely with bipartisan support – to provide inmates with the training they need to find stable employment upon their release.

Under former Gov. Scott Walker, the state established job training centers within state prisons to prepare inmates for careers in fields like welding, CNC machining, industrial maintenance and construction. Gov. Tony Evers has expressed support for expanding those programs.

In January, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers introduced a proposal that would expand expungement eligibility for more individuals with criminal records in an effort to reduce barriers to employment. The proposal is supported by groups on opposite ends of the political spectrum, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans for Prosperity.

“Wisconsin is on its 11th straight month of unemployment at 3 percent or less; our biggest economic issue right now is that companies can’t find employees for available jobs,” said Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, a sponsor of the bill. “We have hardworking people who can be dedicated employees but don’t have a chance at one of our many, many jobs because of a mistake made years ago. Our bill gives them another chance to support themselves and their families.”

In February, as part of a broader proposal to change the state’s marijuana laws, Evers said he wants to establish expungement procedures for those who have completed their sentence or probation for marijuana possession.

Meanwhile, there are indications that employers are warming to the practice of hiring ex-offenders. In 2018, 646 employers in Wisconsin sought tax credits for hiring a former offender, up from 484 employers in 2017 and 375 in 2016, according to data from the state Department of Workforce Development.

Willie Wade, president and chief executive officer of Employ Milwaukee, said he sees the tide changing. Businesses simply don’t have the luxury of excluding any eligible segment of the workforce.

“Now that there is a talent shortage, they no longer can have that position,” Wade said. “If you cut off a certain section of society as a possible recruiting ground, then you’re putting yourself even further behind.”

Myeesha Young

Clad in crisp white scrubs, 29-year-old Myeesha Young greets patients on a Friday afternoon of what has been a busy week at the women’s health department of the MLK Heritage Health Center on Milwaukee’s near north side.

She’s still new at her job as a patient access representative, but she already sees the possibility of growing professionally there.

Young spent time in prison in Sioux City, Iowa, after pleading guilty to a pimping charge related to an incident in which she rented a hotel room under her name for a friend who was charged with prostitution. Under an interstate compact, Young moved to Milwaukee to live with her grandmother while on supervision.

Myeesha Young, 29, is a patient access representative for the women’s health department of the MLK Heritage Health Center in Milwaukee.

While getting acclimated to the new city, Young – mother to a one-year-old daughter and six-year-old son – experienced repeated job rejections.

At one point, she was extended an offer for a job in the hospitality industry but was informed the day before she was supposed to begin that she didn’t pass a second round of vetting.

In 2016, Wisconsin adopted “ban the box” legislation, barring public sector employers from including questions about an individual’s criminal history on job applications and during the initial screening process. Advocates say delaying the question gives applicants with criminal records an opportunity to be evaluated on their merits and experience, rather than their history.

Still, despite momentum around “ban the box,” about half of employers surveyed nationally said they ask applicants about their criminal record during the hiring process, usually on an initial application form. Employers are allowed to conduct background checks throughout the hiring process, including after a conditional employment offer. DBS checks and other employment checks accelerate safe recruitment. They provide the candidates’ background information, including criminal records.

Young’s parole officer connected her with the Employ Milwaukee team, who helped her with her resume and pushed her to continue trying, despite the rejections. A job fair through Employ Milwaukee eventually connected her with the clinic manager at the MLK Heritage Health Center.

Young reported to her first day of work there on Nov. 19.

Now three months in, she hopes to become a certified ultrasound technician and take a more active role in educating young women about their health.

“I just needed an opportunity to prove myself and show them, rather than me just saying it,” Young said. “I’m at work on time every day. I’m eager. I want to excel. I’m looking to further my education to see if someday I can help others.”

‘We just want to fill positions’

Being in an industry where the skills gap continues to widen, Badger Alloys Inc. generally casts a wide net when hiring.

The Milwaukee-based sand casting foundry maintains what human resources director Teresa Smith describes as an “open door” policy.

“We accept that people make mistakes,” Smith said. “We have applicants who apply for jobs and maybe they have something that was 10, 15 or 20 years ago; we have some that may have just been released and, depending on what the circumstances are, we definitely have an open door to that.”

The company works with staffing agencies to get connected to potential employees, who typically have a 30- to 90-day window to determine whether it’s the right fit, she said.

During the hiring process, Smith said, she talks through an applicant’s criminal background.

“Most people are very upfront about it; they’re very forthcoming,” she said. “And I’m glad they are because that tells me they’re trying to move forward.”

Because of the industry and the nature of Badger Alloys’ work, Smith said, employees’ former offenses aren’t typically cause for concern, like a theft conviction might be for a retailer.

Their hiring practice fits with the company’s other workforce development initiatives aimed at providing opportunities to people who may not have succeeded in traditional educational settings – including its partnerships with Milwaukee Public Schools, Metropolitan Milwaukee Association of Commerce-Manufacturing Careers Partnership, the Steel Founders’ Society of America’s Apprenticeship Program and Junior Achievement. It’s a good thing to do as a corporate citizen, the company maintains, but it also meets a real need.

“At the end of the day, we just want to fill positions,” Smith said.

Work ready

In the fall of 2018, Anthony Love, 36, was four months out of prison and disheartened by the job hunt.

He would hear of felony-friendly employers but found they weren’t as open to backgrounds like his, which includes convictions related to drug and firearm possession and robbery.

“You can see they’re kind of scared to even interview you,” Love said. “I got turned down so many times.”

It began to wear on him.

“I had the drive when I got out, but I was getting discouraged,” he said. “I was nervous about going back to the old me.”

His parole officer told him about Employ Milwaukee’s re-entry services, but Love rebuffed the first few times she referred him to the organization.

Employ Milwaukee – the agency formerly known as the Milwaukee Area Workforce Investment Board that is tasked with matching workers to market demand – stands in what can seem like a chasm between former inmates and potential employers.

Employ Milwaukee’s re-entry services are offered within and outside jails and prison, providing cognitive and technical skills training, career planning and referrals to other services.

“Historically, the re-entry population has been that untapped population but … approximately 2,700 to 3,200 people return to Milwaukee County from prison each year,” said Chantell Jewell, who oversaw re-entry services at Employ Milwaukee until February. “And many are getting trained in prison. They are coming with skills that employers might be looking for. It’s our job to make those intentional connections once we’ve assessed for skill and done some barrier reduction. We try to drive those connections.”

Last year, Employ Milwaukee served more than 1,500 individuals through its re-entry programs.

Fred Nelson, business service specialist at Employ Milwaukee, said the organization offers a highly individualized process that takes into account its clients’ interests, barriers to employment and professional aspirations.

“I always like to do a one-on-one to see what their needs are, what their barriers are and what it is they’re looking for,” Nelson said. “Because, nine times out of 10, they will say, ‘I just want a job. I’ll take anything.’ But after the fact we realize a lot of people won’t just take anything.”

For some clients, particularly those who have been incarcerated during their working years, it requires a reframing of their experiences from prison to see them as valuable.

“I helped with a resume for an individual who did seven years and when I asked him if he had ever worked before, he said ‘no,’” Nelson said. “But in prison, he was a cook and worked in the laundry room, so we were able to take those skill sets in that time frame and put it on the resume – seven years of solid work history. So it’s thinking outside of the box. It’s a job he had to perform each and every day.”

Nelson’s phone rings constantly with updates from clients checking in periodically with progress reports. On a recent afternoon, a client called Nelson from the parking lot of his job interview to tell him he arrived 15 minutes early, and later checked in with Nelson again when the interview was over.

On the other side of the equation, Nelson has relationships with employers, informing them about the applicants’ background, but also – and more importantly, Nelson says – where they are currently.

When Love came around to trying it out, he found Employ Milwaukee was different from other programs he had experienced. He learned how to write a resume and tailor it to specific employers and the importance of following up with a phone call after submitting an application.

“They gave me all the support in the world,” he said. “They pushed me. They kept me focused. They kept me motivated. They kept me going.”

Nelson challenged him to complete two applications per day.

“I would say, ‘That’s two seeds we planted today; we’ll work on two more tomorrow,’” Nelson said.

Nelson made promises that to Love sounded practically quixotic, given the difficulty he had finding work up to that point. The hard part wouldn’t be finding a job, Nelson told him, but choosing one from all the offers that would come in. To Love’s surprise, that’s exactly how it played out.

“Next thing I know, five jobs called me back to back, two jobs a day,” he said. “The hardest part was deciding which job I was going to take.”

He landed at Stainless Foundry & Engineering Inc., a foundry and machine shop on Milwaukee’s north side, where he was welcomed “with open arms.”

“They seemed happy to have me,” Love said.

Employ Milwaukee provided him a voucher to cover his $200 work boots. Love’s first paycheck went toward buying his daughter a new coat and bookbag.

In January, he completed Stainless Foundry’s three-month probationary period.

“Everybody makes mistakes, but just because you didn’t make the right decision, does not mean you shouldn’t be given a second chance and that you’re not work ready,” Nelson said. “Individuals with records have more to prove than the average person. (Love) was one of them that by investing in him and believing in him, he had something to prove to me because I had something to prove to him. I told him, ‘We’re in this together.’ That’s what individuals need: someone to believe in them, to encourage them and push them a little bit.”

Milwaukee JobsWork

Bill Krugler, president of Milwaukee JobsWork said the conditions are right for employers to think beyond their traditional hiring practices as they fill vacancies.

Yet, when it comes to workforce development, Krugler recognizes the gap between nonprofit agencies and the for-profit sector – two worlds that can have overlapping and competing priorities. Companies want good qualified candidates, but often there isn’t enough margin to invest in a new employee who may not be ready. He’s intent on bridging that gap.

The recent graduating class of an MATC program that provides entry-level training in computer numerical control machining for incarcerated individuals or those on probation/parole.
Credit: Milwaukee Area Technical College

“We’re not going to make a dent in reducing poverty without jobs and we’re not going to make a dent in jobs without getting the for-profit business community to be part of the solution,” Krugler said. “There are only so many government and nonprofit jobs. You’ve got to get the business community involved in it.”

Krugler started Milwaukee JobsWork in 2013 following a 30-year career in the private sector, including many years at Milwaukee private equity firm Mason Wells Inc. The nonprofit organization’s mission – to provide job readiness training and support for the city’s chronically unemployed – is inspired by Milwaukee’s bleak status as among the poorest cities in the country and its higher unemployment rate among black residents than white residents.

JobsWork, based in Milwaukee’s Harambee neighborhood, specifically targets Milwaukee’s out-of-work population – which a 2017 Brookings Institute study tallied at 45,411 people, or 16.1 percent of the city’s civilian, non-institutionalized population between the ages of 25 and 64.

It offers two-week career readiness workshops and individualized plans to address barriers to employment, such as a lack of a high school diploma, or drug and alcohol addiction, or issues related to illiteracy. For felons, their criminal record adds another layer of complexity.

JobsWork helps individuals find “stability employment,” an arrangement in which a partnering company accommodates with extra support – provided by JobsWork – as the worker establishes a track record of good attendance and performance.

“What we’ve discovered is that, because of having a limited work history and barriers, there will be problems,” Krugler said. “They’re not going to show up some day. They’re going to be late. Things are going to happen.”

JobsWork serves as a liaison when those issues do come up, helping work through them with its clients. It’s a time-intensive process, Krugler said, but it’s a crucial step, setting the stage for employees to begin advancing in their careers. A client may get her foot in the door at a hospital as a food service worker but have the ultimate goal of being a medical technician. JobsWork focuses on helping the person make those moves.

On paper, the process seems fairly linear, but it’s more complicated in practice.

Of the 223 people who attended an initial workshop with JobsWork over the past five years, 30 percent have stayed active with the organization.

“When you’re dealing with people whose lives are complex, sometimes no matter how hard you try and want to do it, it’s just not working for them,” Krugler said.

Some aren’t able to complete the program for whatever reason. Some receive help, find gainful employment and lose touch with the organization. Some require a few false starts before gaining traction.

“The challenge is that it’s not easy,” Krugler said. “It takes a lot of support and time. But what’s the alternative? To do what we’ve been doing – leaving people in poverty?”

For more information:

Employ Milwaukee


(414) 270-1700

Milwaukee Area Technical College


(414) 297-6282

Milwaukee JobsWork


(414) 249-5948

Sign up for BizTimes Daily Alerts

Stay up-to-date on the people, companies and issues that impact business in Milwaukee and Southeast Wisconsin

No posts to display