Michael Taylor, who leads a team of 75 people as an operations manager at Nehemiah Manufacturing, which hired him in 2012, after a stint in prison.
Photographs by Maddie McGarvey
Written by Andrew J. Sobel
For companies struggling to fill key positions, ‘Second-Chancers’ are proving to be a first-rate solution.
Michael Taylor leads a team of 75 people as an operations manager at Nehemiah Manufacturing. When he talks about his past, it’s not because he’s proud of where he’s been, but because he’s proud of how far he’s come.
Once addicted to heroin, Taylor was one bad batch away from becoming another among the hundreds of thousands lost to opioid overdoses over the past decade. “The addiction had taken over,” he recalls now. “To support it, I had gotten involved with another gentleman and we got charged with two felonies, for breaking into a house and taking valuables.”
Paradoxically, the arrest proved to be a lucky break. Behind bars, he stopped using, and realized something important. He was better than this. When he left prison, clean and sober, he applied for dozens of jobs and soon saw what he was up against.
“Nobody was interested in hiring me,” Taylor says, “until I came across Nehemiah Manufacturing.” Since being hired in 2012 to work on the factory floor, Taylor has received seven promotions.
Giving—and Receiving—a Second Chance
It may sound like an unlikely story, but Taylor is only one success among hundreds at Cincinnati-area companies in recent years. That’s because more than 50 companies in the region, under the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, have adopted the “Second Chance” hiring model, originally pioneered by Nehemiah CEO Dan Meyer. The approach appears to have come at just the right time for the region, which has been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic.
The “Second Chance” solution is designed to keep recovering addicts, many of whom have done time behind bars, sober and productive. The approach has dramatic benefits for these hires, their families and communities, while helping businesses solve an increasingly thorny problem—in times of full employment, how do you find and keep good workers?
With U.S. unemployment at around 4%, there’s a shortage of qualified candidates in a number of fields. And in areas like manufacturing, where applicants often need to pass a drug test, the problem can be especially acute. At the same time, more than 16 million Americans currently outside the prison system struggle to find work because they have a felony on their record.
“There are obvious challenges to hiring from this particular labor pool,” says Jeff Korzenik, Fifth Third Bank’s Chief Investment Strategist, and a supporter of Second Chance hiring. “But Second Chancers stay with you longer, reducing your turnover costs. And because they are in their jobs for longer periods of time, they are more experienced and more productive.”
A Crisis With a Solution
In 2016, Ohio ranked No. 2 and Kentucky ranked No. 5 nationally in drug-overdose death rates, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It’s impossible to ignore overdoses, which have nearly doubled since 2009. But other, less obvious effects can be just as devastating – the wasted potential, missed business opportunities, lost skills and depressive economic effects on entire regions. The greater Cincinnati area, which includes parts of northern Kentucky and southern Indiana, has seen those effects firsthand.
“A lot of these people had been thrown out of their homes after stealing their parents’ check pads, stealing their jewelry,” says Kevin Richardson, Development Director at the Addiction Services Council in Cincinnati, which provides a 24-hour "Hopeline" addicts can call in times of need. “They're going from couch to couch, to under a bridge. So many people like that have no hope.”
Hope is a word you hear a lot from Second Chancers and the employers who hire and support them. When Meyer started Nehemiah, “we knew the why of our business. We wanted to come into the inner city to provide employment. But we didn’t realize the real challenges facing people with felonies - nobody would hire them.”
Nehemiah buys or licenses consumer-goods brands, including some well-known detergents and household cleaners, taking on the manufacturing and distribution. It’s a labor-intensive business. The company was first headquartered in the Over-The-Rhine area of Cincinnati, surrounded by neighborhoods with high unemployment and limited job opportunities. But Meyer didn’t start to hire candidates with felony convictions until a local non-profit visited and explained the plight of counselors running job-readiness programs for the newly released, and who were losing credibility because no one would hire their graduates. With some trepidation, Meyer agreed to hire a few ex-convicts. It was an eye-opening experience.
“We quickly found that the most loyal, dedicated employees were the ones who needed, wanted and deserved a second chance. You could see them blossoming just because somebody believed in them. That’s when we went all in,” Meyer says. Now Nehemiah hires almost exclusively people who need a second chance, “and the hires are predominantly people with a felony.”
While Meyer acknowledges the safety concerns, he notes, “most of those felonies, they’re not violent crimes. It's people who have used drugs, sold drugs, stole to feed their addiction. And now here we are: We're a $60 million company in annual revenue with 140 employees, about 90-to-100 of whom are Second Chance hires. We have a low staff turnover rate—10 to 15%—in an industry that can get up to 100%, and it's because we have a dedicated, loyal group of people.”
Nehemiah Manufacturing CEO Dan Meyer, who pioneered the “Second Chance” hiring model, and whose company has 90 to 100 Second Chance employees.
A Supporting Role
Dedication is a two-way street, and Nehemiah shows its commitment to its employees through a host of on-site support programs, and what Meyer calls “a very caring culture.” For one thing, Nehemiah doesn’t have a classic human-resources department. It has social workers instead. The company promotes from within, so that any employee can, like Taylor, advance multiple times. “They all started in the same place, taking a box off the belt. Show up, be a team player, and we take care of the rest,” Meyer says.
Knowing the hurdles that face people returning to the workforce, Nehemiah also helps its employees in other ways. The company recently bought a house, and rents it to an employee for only half of what the employee would have to pay for a similar place elsewhere. It also has two vans to get people to and from their jobs, even at other Beacon of Hope companies, including one more than 30 miles away, every day. For this service, it charges a nominal fee only after the riders have achieved some financial stability. For employees with families, Nehemiah provides school supplies and bicycles for children. It offers zero-interest medical loans and monthly profit sharing. It also brings in social service, medical and other professionals to teach classes.
But perhaps the most important thing Nehemiah offers its Second Chance employees is someone to talk to, and an open-door policy from day one. The company employs in-house coaches and counselors to assess the employee’s needs and offers help whenever necessary throughout that employee’s time at Nehemiah.
Marcus Sheanshang, who owns JBM Packaging, a company with a substantial number of Second Chance hires, and Brittany Sloan, an employee of the month.
More Reward than Risk
To be sure, counselors, coaches and other support mechanisms are neither easy to implement nor inexpensive. But the rewards of the Second Chance program go beyond the bottom line, says Marcus Sheanshang, who owns JBM Packaging, an industrial-scale printer and packaging manufacturer in Lebanon, Ohio with a sizable Second-Chance workforce.
“Historically, we had zero interest in hiring anybody who had a questionable background,” Sheanshang says. “But the more I learned, the more I personally started to feel empathy for people just getting out of prison. You don’t have a lot of money. You probably don’t have a valid driver’s license. You certainly don’t have a job, and it’s going to be tough for you to live, to get an apartment.”
At the time, Sheanshang was struggling to find quality applicants in Lebanon, and so experimented with a hiring program similar to Nehemiah’s. As it launched the program, JBM’s leadership toured Nehemiah, and impressed with what they saw, went a step further. JBM placed a key piece of its equipment in the print shop at Pickaway Correctional Institution, and trained an inmate serving a relatively long sentence to run it. Now that inmate trains others with shorter sentences on the machine, and they will have a job waiting at JBM when they’re released.
“If we can train them in prison, they are more valuable to us, and will most likely start at a higher hourly rate,” Sheanshang says. “Our goal is to have two or three trained people coming out every year to replace our retiring team members.” The program has worked so well that JBM and the state plan to add a second piece of equipment at Pickaway.
Sloan, who was hired by JBM while she was in prison, now helps other Second Chance employees at the company.
Employee of the Month
Brittnay Sloan is a vivacious 29-year-old quality-control expert. She went from a women’s prison in Dayton, Ohio, straight to JBM. A recent Employee of the Month, she’s the last person to inspect many of the company’s products before they reach customers.
“I was a single mother. I worked two jobs, but was introduced to the drug life. I got carried away with that," she says, "and it led me to prison,” where JBM came to interview people from the Lebanon area. Now, to help employees like Sloan, JBM sponsors an internal working group for staffers who have been incarcerated. “My life coach doesn’t have the experience of being incarcerated, so he asked me and another person to help him to mentor people,” Sloan says.
In addition to helping her fellow employees, Sloan says that she looks forward to her future with the company, where everyone from Sheanshang to the people in sales, accounting and human resources have been supportive of her since she started.
“They’re very friendly and they make sure you know how they feel,” she says. “They show their faith in you.”
Sheanshang calls Sloan "a win-win-win. We get a really engaged team member. The team member gets a well-paying job with us. And the community gets a tax-paying citizen who can get themselves and their family back on their feet.”
Success stories such as Taylor and Sloan are boons not just on a local level, but also on a national one, says Korzenik of Fifth Third Bank. “When you truly run out of workers, your economic expansion tends to run out of steam. Reaching deeper into the pool of prospective employees, we can extend our economic cycle and make it both longer and stronger,” he says.
Korzenik isn’t at all surprised that Meyer at Nehemiah and Sheanshang at JBM have achieved their staffing goals by hiring recovering addicts. “Drug addiction and recidivism have long plagued our society and the economy,” he notes. “The upside of tight labor conditions, the silver lining, is that the incredible problem-solving acumen and abilities of the business community are engaged to address these social ills in the pursuit of employees.”