Prison hosts roundtable for employers; Gov. Reynolds continues push to employ ‘returning citizens’
ROCKWELL CITY — With record low unemployment, an aging workforce and industries struggling to find desperately needed labor for operations, some employers are opening their minds to what “returning citizens” — those who have served time in prison — have to offer.
“We have a moral responsibility to think differently,” said Gov. Kim Reynolds in a keynote address at the Employer and Reentry Breakfast Roundtable at North Central Correctional Facility Thursday morning, telling employers and human resource managers that prisons should not be the only stop in order to break viscious cycles of recidivism.
“With a shortage of skills, this is an amazing opportunity to get people back on track and address workforce needs,” she said.
The roundtable addressed the needs of employers, demonstrated how returning citizens might be a good fit for their needs and discussed the unique challenges ex-offenders have in trying to get their life back on track with finding and retaining a job.
Of those in prison, 90% will return to their communities. Iowa’s Department of Corrections currently offers 26 different apprenticeships, where 350 inmates are currently enrolled.
Access to six private and five public employers at North Central gives inmates valuable skills that can translate to careers after they’ve served their time.
“We’re in manufacturing, so the pool of talent is smaller than it used to be,” said Kyle Roed, HR director at CPM Holdings. “For me and my organization, it came down to numbers and available labor.”
“When unemployment is this low, the burden falls on employers (to fill labor shortages),” said Ryan West, deputy director of the Department of Corrections. “That’s a change from several years ago.”
After taking a closer look at the untapped labor markets, CPM Holdings decided to “ban the box,” the question on applications asking applicants if they’ve been convicted of a crime. Since then, Roed said application rates jumped dramatically and turnover rates fell to about half of what they were before.
It’s one of several solutions discussed that could be part of a more holistic, individually-focused approach to finding and retaining quality employees who want to recover from a less than stellar past and move on with their lives.
Employers like CPM Holdings have found that returning citizens often make some of their greatest employees with turnkey skill sets from people motivated and grateful to have a good job.
Students serving time are earning an average GPA of 3.5 in educational programs offered, thanks to their motivation, Reynolds said.
“The guy that (first) hired me, he was reticent when we first talked,” said Blair Greiman, who served 30 years in prison, where he gained certifications in woodworking. “But that certificate caused him to take a second look at me. It was very helpful.”
Greiman is now a business owner himself.
Others say that “banning the box” and destigmatizing their criminal history in the employment process makes applicants more upfront to volunteer information about their past in person.
“We just say we won’t set you up to fail,” said Randy Van Dyke, CEO of Iowa Lakes Regional Water. “They start telling us everything we ought to know. They’re comfortable volunteering that.”
He said that when applicants know they’ll be supported without judgement for their past, the bond between the employer and the employee begins to strengthen early in the interview process.
Some of the most common barriers for those seeking employment after serving time include finding stable housing, re-establishing a drivers license and being able to maintain transportation.
“We’re looking for machinists,” said Diane Harrison, human resources and safety manager for Fisher Hydraulics. “Those skills are dying off and we need them.”
Those hired with certifications from programs in prison are already two months ahead of those off the street with no experience, she said.
Her company, based in Laurens, is one of several major manufacturers looking for employees. Harrison said their current workforce commutes from 23 ZIP codes.
Thanks to programming and education from Iowa Central Community College, inmates are coming out of prison more prepared than ever before for the next step in their lives.
“You’d rather be known as a tradesman than an ex-con,” said Grieman. “Any chance a guy has to center his identity around what he does for a living, it’s easier to grab on to that,”
Thanks to Second Chance Pell’s pilot program granted to Iowa Central in 2016, the only community college in the state to receive the grant, ICCC is able to fund technical training, GED programs, apprenticeships and now associate’s degrees as the first step for those who want to pursue a bachelor’s degree.
Many types of federal financial aid and student loans, such as Pell grants given to the average college student, are not available to those currently incarcerated or those who have been convicted of drug crimes.
Module-based courses, taken online in computer labs the same way any other student would take an online course, offer those in prisons like North Central the flexibility they need, particularly since time in prison doesn’t match up well with an academic schedule.
Some disciplines like pastry arts, welding and industrial machinery utilize on-site facilities for training and offer paid work inmates are eligible for later on.
Those working in the nearby Iowa Prison Industries building, for example, earn $9.69 per hour folding and packaging things such as balloons and are eligible for bonuses with better performance. A majority of the money earned will first go towards taxes and restitution, if inmates owe any.
The prison population in Iowa, at about 8,500 inmates, owes over $100 million in restitution, said Neale Adams, business and industrial technology dean for ICCC.
“For us, there is an investment of time,” said Roed, as his company hires more returning citizens, “but indirect benefits are paying big dividends. Now that the base is established, there is a big light at the end of the tunnel because we know how to navigate.”
But manufacturers aren’t the only ones seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
“When I was younger I never thought about going to college,” said inmate Joshua Gillette in the computer lab. “This program gives motivation and a path towards a goal.”
Since he started again on his education, the student, who said he earned Cs and Ds in school before prison, said the programs at Iowa Central have been a big part of helping him realize his goals.
“I can see the light at the end of the tunnel now,” he said. “This is a sanctuary for us.”
In addition to helping them realize goals, the education also helps explain gaps in work history and meet other post-prison challenges.
“By accomplishing a high school diploma, you feel a little better about yourself in a place where it’s hard to feel better about yourself,” said Bruce Struecker, an inmate set to get his high school GED early next year.
After years of frustration for having to lie on job applications about graduating from high school, he said it will feel great to not have to lie about it when he needs a job.
Others have their sights set on higher goals, even after decades in prison could have dampened their outlook on life outside the barbed wire fences.
“Prison has a way of making you work on your adaptability,” said inmate Nathan Curtis, an industrially certified mentor for other students who has his eyes on a bachelor’s degree in engineering when he leaves. “You need to be able to adapt here.”
Curtis, 34, has been incarcerated for 16 years — nearly half his life. He will be eligible for parole and face the parole board next year.
An employer present during the tour was particularly impressed by his presentation and nearly offered him a job on the spot. Others made strong connections with and even job offers to inmates during their tour of the facilities.
“This is really a community effort,” said Beth Skinner, director of the DOC. “If we want to create those successful paths to re-entry, it’s going to take all of us.”