Employers look to hire ex-felons trained in technical programs

Many Minnesota employers are struggling to find workers. One place most aren’t likely to look is among ex-felons, who make up about 8 percent of the state’s adults, according to MPR.

Things are changing in that respect, however. With Minnesota’s near-record jobless rate and more vacancies than job-seekers, employers are taking a new look at a population that’s historically had a hard time finding work.

MPR’s recent story on the topic opens with a profile of Adoniyah Israel, who learned machining, welding and computer science while in prison for homicide. His training helped him get a job in a metal-working shop after his release in February 2018.

Israel credits his life turn-around to Power of People Leadership Institute in north Minneapolis, which offers counseling and help with housing, transportation and the search for a job. “Rehabilitation, in our mind, is always about the offender’s decision to change his life and have a changed mind and changed attitude to meet with opportunity,” Shane Price, a co-founder of the institute, told MPR.

Ujamaa Place in St. Paul is another organization that assists former offenders with life counseling and housing, work and family issues. Richard McLemore, the organization’s director of employment and housing, agrees that employers are becoming more willing to hire people with criminal records:

 “It’s getting easier by necessity,” McLemore said. “Employers are beginning to tolerate…some employees they have to take on because now the pool of potential candidates for these jobs that are out there—it’s narrowing.”

Lisa Odland, a workforce specialist with Dakota County, confirms that more companies are willing to consider hiring people who have been in prison.  She told MPR that employers want to “hear what their story is, what happened, what they’ve done since then, instead of just giving a blanket, ‘No.’”

She adds that giving ex-offenders a chance can yield significant benefits:

“With the tight job market, they’re having a very hard time finding employees,” she said. “And what they’ve found is that the few employees that they have hired in the past that have a criminal background are some of the best employees that they have.”

Prisoners can get valuable job training in a number of in-demand fields while serving their sentences. According to MPR,

The Minnesota Department of Corrections offers 20 career technical programs for inmates, covering everything from welding and solar panel installation to barbering and computing.

Employers who hire people with criminal records are also eligible for some tax breaks and bonding programs that protect employers from employee theft, forgery, larceny, and embezzlement, up to $5,000.

The Minnesota Department of Human Rights has created a toolkit to encourage employers and business groups to take a close look at the options here. State officials don’t track the number of ex-offenders who are unemployed, though they do know which end up returning to prison. Local numbers offer some context. In Dakota County, about 25 percent of the current parolees in the county are currently jobless.

Only one employer that MPR contacted about hiring ex-cons agreed to an interview about the experience. MPR spoke with Bruce Steinke, a recruiter with Spectro Alloys, an aluminum smelting company in Rosemount:

Steinke said he’s willing to offer jobs to ex-cons, if they’re committed to changing for the better and don’t have a history of violence.

“We’re all about giving people a second chance, as long as they earn it,” he said

The jobs are hard and often uncomfortable, Steinke said. Temperatures inside the plant can hit 130 degrees in the summer. But new hires can make up to $45,000 their first year.

Not every ex-con he’s hired has worked out but that’s been true of people who’ve never [been] behind bars, Steinke said. “You win some. You lose some. We’ve gotten some right and we’ve gotten a few wrong.”

He said he’s not giving up on hiring people with a prison record.