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Second chance hiring can bridge labor gaps, break employment barriers

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Amanda Hall is a talent acquisition and training specialist at JBM Packaging in Ohio — a position that five years ago she couldn’t have envisioned herself holding due to her time involved with the justice and corrections systems. Hall joined the company through its program that hires and provides training for previously incarcerated individuals.

“I was really nervous about getting out of prison because I was like, ‘How am I going to continue the success [of my reformation] outside these prison walls?’” Hall said. “I might have a great resume, but nobody’s going to hire me. And then a month before I was allowed to be released, JBM Packaging came in.”

More manufacturers are turning to “Fair Chance” or “Second Chance” programs to ease hiring challenges. And both the companies and the new hires report a plethora of ongoing benefits.

JBM works with Ohio corrections facilities to identify inmates who are soon to be released and could be recruited for open jobs. Its fair chance program has been in place for about seven years, and nearly one-third of JBM’s 150 current employees are participants. 

“If they are not able to earn a living, many times they go back to what they were doing before, which led them to prison,” said Marcus Sheanshang, president and CEO at JBM Packaging. Corrections systems “want this program to be successful, too, because they do not want recidivism.”

For example, in 2022 the Indiana Department of Correction showed a 29.79% rate of recidivism, or offenders who are recommitted within three years of release from a correctional institute. That’s notably lower than the 37.9% in 2011, the year before the state launched its HIRE (Hoosier Initiative for Re-Entry) program. The state’s Department of Workforce Development helped to create that program in 2012 to aid formerly incarcerated individuals with reintegrating into society. Organizers say the intervention correlates with a decrease in recidivism over time — and a 2017 study from researchers at Indiana University-Bloomington backs that claim.

“Every year that I’ve been working with the program — in the seven years I’ve been doing it — the recidivism rate has continuously gone down,” said Jordan Baer, HIRE coordinator, who pointed to data suggesting that 85% of the people who reoffend are unemployed.

Hall, who suffered childhood trauma, later began drug use and incurred debt. She started selling drugs to pay for her habit and eventually ended up in prison. She said landing and maintaining a job at JBM Packaging has helped her to get grounded and flourish.

“I was able to just really focus on working and rebuilding my life. I was able to pay off all my fines and fees within like six months and get off probation,” she said.

Hall started as an entry-level machine operator at JBM Packaging. Although she had never worked in manufacturing before, she learned and excelled at that position. After several months, she learned of a trainer position and put her name in for it — ultimately achieving that role and continuing to move up the ladder as a recruiter in the human resources department. She remains involved with the Fair Chance initiative as a support to, and recruiter for, other participants.

Many of JBM’s Fair Chance program participants start at entry-level positions and then are promoted to supervisory positions, according to Sheanshang. But the company is open to hiring formerly incarcerated people into any open role, including back-office and leadership positions.

Indiana Department of Correction HIRE Coordinator Jordan Baer, right, participates in a resource fair for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated individuals.

Permission granted by Indiana Department of Correction

 

Mutually meeting needs

Formerly incarcerated individuals face basic barriers to employment in the form of stigma or employers’ unwillingness to take a chance on someone with a criminal record. They also “face upwards of 650 different rules and limiting factors — we call them collateral sanctions — that limit and prevent individuals returning from incarceration from finding, obtaining and maintaining employment,” said Basette Smith II, co-founder at The Empower Group, a consulting firm that specializes in fair chance employment. Collateral consequences involve, for example, many state laws banning returning citizens from holding public sector jobs, including as emergency responders. 

For years, companies have struggled to hire enough employees due to labor shortages that acutely touch the manufacturing sector. A report released this month by Deloitte and The Manufacturing Institute showed the need for up to 3.8 million new manufacturing workers by 2033. 

But 1.9 million of those roles could go unfilled unless current labor gaps are resolved, the report said. JBM Packaging is among the numerous companies that initially turned to reentry programs to access a largely untapped talent pool amid these hiring woes.

“It’s really allowed us to sustain our growth. I don’t know where we would be right now without our Fair Chance program,” said Sheanshang. Formerly incarcerated individuals are “very engaged” and are “a very steady group” for JBM to recruit from, he added. 

Other packaging businesses that have touted their second chance hiring include CKS Packaging, Vericool Packaging and Nehemiah Manufacturing. The latter two companies’ missions specifically are to provide formerly incarcerated individuals with jobs in manufacturing, fulfillment and warehousing: Vericool focuses on biobased cold-chain packaging solutions while Nehemiah partners with brands like Tide and Downy for its products.

One-third of Ohio’s population has been convicted of a crime or had interactions with the justice system, according to The Empower Group, whose founders previously worked at Nehemiah in Ohio. Nationally, more than 650,000 people are released from state and federal prisons each year, and more than 70 million Americans — about 21% of the total U.S. population — have a criminal record, according to data in the White House’s declaration of April as Second Chance Month, which has been observed since 2017.

Packaging companies, in particular, play a notable part in hiring formerly incarcerated workers, sources said. Indiana Department of Correction’s Baer confirmed that packaging plays an important role across the state, with thermoforming and boxmaking companies among the locally prominent second chance employers.

Hiring returning individuals is mutually beneficial, as it eases companies’ labor challenges while providing opportunity to a “talent pool that has been largely marginalized and largely overlooked,” Smith said, adding that “there is also some altruism in this.”

JBM Packaging has also found other benefits, such as reducing employee churn.

“With the Fair Chance program there’s still turnover, but it’s less than our non-Fair Chance people,” Sheanshang said. “They want to be part of something bigger.”

Dozens of small notes posted on a board with an employee goal listed on each one.

JBM Packaging’s Better Lives coaches work with program participants to develop soft skills, including through goal-setting activities.

Permission granted by JBM Packaging

 

More than money

Although JBM primarily first explored this program to fill a hiring gap, underlying humanistic reasons and the program’s success prompted the company to continue the initiative and expand it, according to Sheanshang.

“What we are encouraging companies to invest in is a shift in culture, permanently and ongoing,” said Elle Baker, co-founder at The Empower Group. “Yes, we have seen more companies getting interested in this because of the labor shortage. We don’t have a problem with that” as the initial spark of interest.

But Empower cautions against stopping at simply providing jobs. They recommend also offering other supportive services to create a holistic program. 

“A paycheck is one piece of the puzzle, but returning citizens often lack the support that we know really is necessary for long-term success,” Baker said, noting an overlap between citizens returning from incarceration and poverty. “In order for a company to be successful in this work, it takes having that on-site support.”

The types of support in a business’s second chance program can “look different for different companies,” Baker said, but could include financial education, mental health counseling, addiction recovery groups and transportation assistance. Companies should start by launching a needs assessment for what is valuable to both the employer and workers, she said.

Holistic programs “help individuals to identify their hidden resiliency as well” and “help folks to dream bigger than they may have done otherwise,” Smith said. 

Hall backed that sentiment, explaining that participation in JBM’s Fair Chance program has helped to boost not only her workplace skills but also her confidence, which positively influences both her work and home environments. “Everything is like the dream life that I’ve always envisioned for myself,” she said, speaking effusively about how her turnaround has resulted in personal growth, a healthy relationship and a three-year-old daughter.


“There has to be an intentionality around it. There has to be investment around it. There has to be a commitment.” 

Basette Smith II

Co-founder at The Empower Group


JBM provides a wide-ranging set of services to its Fair Chance participants, including assistance with acquiring a vehicle. A foundational element of the program is that participants meet regularly with life coaches. Returning citizens receive help with hard and soft skills, including conflict resolution and coping, communication, working on a team, goal setting, drawing boundaries and engaging in healthy relationships. Participants who complete the six-month Better Lives coaching program attend a graduation ceremony.

“It’s a really cool event because a lot of people that are getting out of prison, their parents or significant other or children have not been proud of them for something in a very long time,” Hall said. “This is something where they get to stand up and they get to be presented an award, and their family is actually proud of them.”

Incorporating services beyond just job placement helps to reduce recidivism as well, said IDOC’s Baer. Even providing assistance with navigating how to get a driver’s license and how to rent or buy a home aids reentry. Ongoing check-ins with counselors or support staff are also key.

“The hardest part is keeping that job, keeping the momentum they have built, and not getting dragged down by other people,” Baer said. “We don’t just drop somebody off at a job. We, the coordinators of the HIRE program, follow them … and keep working on a better job or education or keep knocking out some other barriers.”

These wide-ranging programs are designed for equity, which involves assisting people with what they need to succeed, rather than equality, which is giving the same resources to everyone, Baker pointed out. When companies are “serious about lasting change and a culture shift, these [supports] are things that should be baked in,” she said.

Companies often are initially leery about hiring people with criminal records, and they can be even more intimidated by the idea of providing social service support to their workforce, Baker said. But such programs actually benefit the workforce and company culture as a whole, she said, noting an uptick in companies moving away from “identification or labeling or segregation of one sector of their workforce versus the other” and toward all-encompassing initiatives.

And the positive effects ripple out into the greater community, Smith said.

“Companies are citizens of the community as well, especially in the packaging and manufacturing industries. Being a good community citizen is not only providing jobs, but providing holistic supports in conjunction with the community,” he said. “There has to be an intentionality around it. There has to be investment around it. There has to be a commitment.” 

Rear view of several people sitting in desks in a classroom and looking at displays on a TV screen.

Virtual job fairs are one of the services offered through the HIRE program at the Indiana Department of Correction.

Permission granted by Indiana Department of Correction

 

Powerful partnerships

Developing a second chance program can be challenging for first-timers, especially when “bringing a human services element to a for-profit, corporate environment,” Smith said. But partnerships with experienced outside organizations can help to navigate issues and unveil best practices.

“That’s something that we really promote. A company doesn’t have to do it all on their own,” said Empower’s Baker. Adding to that, Smith said: “This is what we do. We equip businesses to be life-changing fair chance employers. So if you’re unsure, just reach out and ask for help.” 

Businesses also can engage corrections departments or other state agencies as a resource. Sheanshang said the state of Ohio has been instrumental in supporting the upstart and ongoing operations of JBM’s Fair Chance program. There are also numerous federal and state incentives available, often in the form of tax credits, for employers who hire formerly incarcerated people, including in Illinois, Indiana and Maryland.


“Be careful of judging people too quickly.”

Marcus Sheanshang

President and CEO at JBM Packaging


Some states, like Ohio, tout their work skills training programs for inmates, which help returning citizens’ chances of job placement upon release from the institution. JBM Packaging engages people who are still in an institution: “We’ve got actual equipment in a prison to do training work on. So a person that is trained in the prison, when they get out they’re able to be paid more, and they’re further in the training program,” Sheanshang said.

Indiana’s HIRE program provides current inmates with additional classes and training — such as for building a resume, talking with employers or virtual job fairs. “That way, they’re ready for the market before they even leave. Then once they get out, we continue that,” Baer said. He noted that the HIRE program works extensively with employers, including that IDOC allows participating businesses to interview inmates prior to their release. Participation is free both for returning citizens and for hiring companies. 

Indiana’s HIRE reintegration program is considered an industry leader, having received recognition and awards from the likes of the National Association of State Workforce Agencies. In addition to companies seeking advice from IDOC, other state agencies have reached out to learn about the program and get advice about best practices, Baer said.

JBM is also happy to serve as a resource, Sheanshang said. He offered a key piece of advice for anyone embarking on a reentry program, which extends to myriad life situations: “Be careful of judging people too quickly.”

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