Frontier Co-op-2

You don’t need to read yet again how bad the labor shortage is right now – as a member of the food and beverage industry, it’s something you probably experience on a daily basis. I’ve heard stories of manufacturers who’ve had to shorten their production shifts, or sometimes cut shifts altogether, not because the demand isn’t there but because they don’t have enough staff.

At the same time, there’s a large population that is available, eager to work, and largely untapped: the roughly 80 million Americans who are justice-involved, or have a criminal record. More than 650,000 individuals are released from prison every year and many are shut out of the labor market. A 2018 analysis by the Prison Policy Initiative shows that the unemployment rate of formerly incarcerated people is more than 27%, which is higher than the U.S. unemployment rate has ever been, including during the Great Depression. More recently, a 2022 study found that more than half of unemployed men in the U.S. have a criminal conviction by age 35.

Some employers are concerned about hiring justice-involved people, a practice called second chance hiring, because they are afraid that they won’t be reliable or effective employees, or that the employers will face some sort of legal liability. But these concerns are based more on biases than facts. Consider the evidence:

Frontier Co-op: A model for succeeding with second chance hiring

For food and beverage companies interested in exploring second chance hiring, Frontier Co-op, a leader in organic spices, herbs, botanicals, and plant-based products, is a very good model. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Megan Schulte, Frontier Co-op’s VP of Human Resources, and Alisia Weaver, an operator who has benefitted from the company’s Breaking Down Barriers to Employment program.

Megan Schulte, VP of Human Resources at Frontier Co-op

This program, which earned Frontier Co-op a place on the Inc. 2022 Best in Business list in the Correctional Re-Entry Services category, is a comprehensive program aimed at reducing systemic obstacles to employee success in their local community of Norway, Iowa, which is about 20 miles outside of Cedar Rapids. “We’re committed to having a positive impact on people’s lives,” said Schulte. “That includes our grower communities, our consumers, and our employees.”

The roots of Breaking Down Barriers go back 40+ years to Frontier Co-op’s beginning, when most of the company’s employees were women from local farming families. These women were also often the primary caregivers for children, and they started bringing their kids to work. In response, Frontier Co-op started a childcare program, which today is licensed for 110 children and partners with a local school district for pickup and dropoff. The cost is less than $100 per week per child, which is under half the average childcare cost in Iowa, and about one-third the average cost nationwide.

Following the success of the childcare program, Frontier Co-op looked around and saw more barriers to employment that they could help remove. Today, in addition to childcare, Breaking Down Barriers includes a partnership with Willis Dady Homeless Services, an apprenticeship program (which nearly 400 people have participated in so far), transportation assistance (workers who use the transportation have a 99% attendance rate), a recently launched financial education and savings program, a soon-to-be-launched English as a Second Language program, and, of course, second chance hiring.

“Everybody is looking for workers, and we’re in rural Iowa in the manufacturing industry. We could have sat back and waited for our local or state government to help us, but we decided to be a part of the solution,” Schulte said. “We talked to some of our local nonprofit partners, and what we learned is that there were people in our local community who wanted employment and just needed a second chance. Roughly one in three American adults has a justice-involved past, and that’s a huge number of people to bypass based on some of the most difficult days in their lives.”

The second chance hiring process isn’t any different from the typical hiring process. “Individuals have the opportunity to come in and talk about themselves and where they want to go in their careers without the hiring manager knowing about their background,” Schulte said. “They’re coming to a community where they’re being judged on their work ethic and their performance here, rather than on anything from their past. It’s a fresh start for them, and we’ve seen great success.”

Alisia Weaver, operator at Frontier Co-op

One of those success stories belongs to Alisia Weaver. Weaver has a criminal background and has struggled with housing security. She was referred by the Sixth Judicial Court of Iowa to Willis Dady Homeless Services, where she learned about Frontier Co-op. After six weeks as an apprentice, she was hired full-time.

“Without Frontier Co-op, I don’t know where I’d be,” Weaver said. “I’ve had personal employment struggles in the past. Since working here, I have my own place, I have my vehicle, I’m financially stable – it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to say that.” When I asked about her future plans, the answer was easy: she will stay at Frontier Co-op.

Starting a second chance hiring program

It might be tempting to say, “That all sounds great, but also expensive. It just wouldn’t make sense for my company.”

But a key thing that people who run second chance hiring programs point out is that it’s not about charity, it’s about business. “We truly believe that there’s no tension between doing good in the world and having a financially successful business,” Schulte said. “I know that’s a hard thing for corporate America to get over, but doing good helps our community, it helps our economy, and it will help everybody in the long run.”

For other companies that are interested, but hesitant, Schulte recommends starting small by bringing on a couple of people with justice-involved pasts and seeing how it goes. She also recommends partnering with local nonprofits that have a different outlook on what’s happening in communities and can help find intersections where the business and community can help each other. In many cases, the first, and perhaps the hardest step, is simply being open-minded and overcoming biases about employing people in these circumstances.

Weaver echoes that sentiment, adding that stipulations, like only hiring non-violent offenders, can help people feel more comfortable with the program.

There’s a lot of talk about how the food and beverage industry can appeal to the new generation of workers. And while that’s undoubtedly important, let’s not forget about the myriad other populations, like justice-involved individuals, who are in all of our communities and looking for work.

“Employers can sit back during this time when it’s difficult to find employees and wait for something to happen or you can make your own luck,” Schulte said. “You may have to go out on a limb, but what we’ve seen is that companies that are embracing these programs aren’t feeling the workforce impacts that others are on a day-to-day basis.”

As further proof, Frontier Co-op’s total employee turnover is around 24%, roughly half of the 2022 industry standard of 47% (counting both quits and layoffs). The program has been so successful that the company no longer has to rely on contract staffing vendors beyond Willis Dady to fill operational workforce needs in their Norway facility.

Many employers think second chance hiring is risky. But the data, and personal stories like Weaver’s, show that it’s a solid investment in people who will work hard and be long-term assets for the company.

The federal government provides financial resources for companies that make these investments. Learn more about the Work Opportunity Tax Credit and the Federal Bonding Program.

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