Manufacturers Push to Give Workers With Criminal Records a Second Chance

Source: Nehemiah Manufacturing
  • Citing a worker shortage, the manufacturing industry is eager to increase the talent pool.
  • The manufacturing sector has 500,000 jobs open currently and expects to fill another 4 million jobs over the next 10 years.
  • With the right support, people with criminal backgrounds have proven successful in filling the gap.

At the age of 56, Franklin Comer is proudly working at his first job.

Comer is approaching his one-year anniversary at Nehemiah Manufacturing in Cincinnati, after serving more than 33 years in prison for aggravated robbery and murder.

"Throughout the whole incarceration, one of the first things that was most important to me, I had to take an inventory of self … and identify the issues that sent me to prison and allowed me to make the decisions that led me to commit a crime," Comer said. "I knew I made a mistake. And so, when I went to prison, I tried to redeem myself into becoming a better person." 

"You know, it took me a while," he said. "I accomplished it."

Comer received help to reenter society from Cincinnati Works, a job readiness organization in Ohio. The program helped Comer get his driver's license, fill out job applications and find his way to Nehemiah. Today, he works as a warehouse associate — and his story isn't unique. Out of Nehemiah's 180 employees, nearly 80% are "second chance" hires, part of a greater push for inclusive capitalism the company first embraced a decade ago.

"There's a cohesion here of people that you would never know what their background is, if they didn't tell you. And to me that's important," Comer said. "They don't care about the past, [there's a] degree of compassion and understanding that they have here."

Companies like Nehemiah have embraced second chance hiring of workers with criminal records, out of compassion and, more frequently, out of necessity. The manufacturing sector has 500,000 jobs open today — a number that will swell to 4 million over the course of the next decade. Finding workers to fill those jobs is a challenge.

To help bridge the gap, The Manufacturing Institute, the workforce development and education partner of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), recently announced a new partnership with the Charles Koch Institute to expand so-called second chance hiring opportunities in the industry, following the model Nehemiah has been working on for 11 years.

Nehemiah Manufacturing's vision is to build brands, create jobs and change lives.
Source: Nehemiah Manufacturing
Nehemiah Manufacturing's vision is to build brands, create jobs and change lives.

One in 3 Americans have a criminal record, and the partnership and accompanying grant will allow NAM to help educate and provide resources for manufacturing employers to attract and retain new talent, said Carolyn Lee, executive director of The Manufacturing Institute. Lee said 2.1 million jobs could go unfilled in manufacturing in the next 10 years if workers are not recruited. That could hit the U.S. economy by as much as $1 trillion in lost gross domestic product by 2030, according to a recent study from The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte.

"There are high rates of retention for the second chance population. It can be a great platform and a pathway to a successful career with the manufacturer," Lee said. "For some folks, they haven't had a job in quite some time but are eager to start a new life. … We want to build these coalitions and help companies know where to begin and where to go to make them successful."

'Good for business and good for society'

Nehemiah Manufacturing was founded with the goal of bringing light-duty manufacturing jobs to Cincinnati, which evolved into providing opportunities for workers like Comer.

"It's good for business and good for society," Eric Wellinghoff, Nehemiah's chief marketing officer, said. The company takes a special approach to human resources issues, has a social services team on-site, and even a family home it furnishes and provides for some employees. Comer said he participated in the company's "Wheels Program," which provided him a car, free of charge, to get to and from work.

In an industry where turnover is historically high, Wellinghoff said Nehemiah's average tenure is 5½ years.

"We have built a family here. People who love working here — they love doing their job, they love getting better at their job, and ultimately that drives down to our bottom line," he said.

The Manufacturing Institute is working to change the perception that manufacturing jobs are dead-end by telling potential candidates at every level, from the second chance community to younger students and even parents, that modern-day manufacturing jobs are high tech, clean and high paying. Workers earn an average of $84,000 a year, with benefits. Starting pay for entry-level positions is above $15 an hour, Lee said.

The second chance hiring initiative goes beyond NAM's efforts. Nehemiah Manufacturing founded the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance in 2016, which is now operated by Cincinnati Works and partners with dozens of companies including Kroger, JBM Packaging, JTM Food Group, Castellini and Graeter's. Large companies like Walmart, Starbucks and Home Depot also have inclusive hiring practices for those with criminal records. The federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit also offers incentives to employers of qualifying ex-felons.

Comer is hopeful other companies will look at Nehemiah's model and give workers like himself a shot.

"When a man has truly become successful is because somebody believed in him and gave him a chance," he said. "So for those companies that, that are not second chance companies, you know, that's all guys like me want, is for somebody to believe in them and give them a chance." 

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