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Why This Michigan Manufacturing Company Wants To Hire More Ex-Cons

The firm is part of a project to show that a candidate’s criminal past doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker in hiring–and it could even be an asset.

Why This Michigan Manufacturing Company Wants To Hire More Ex-Cons
[Photos: Flickr user Alexander C. Kafka]

When Jahaun McKinley was released from prison, he ran into a common problem: It’s extremely difficult to get a job when you have a criminal record.

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McKinley did everything he could think of, including completing a prisoner re-entry program and working with Hope Network, an organization that teaches job-hunting skills. Six months out, still no luck.

Eventually, McKinley joined Americorp and started taking classes at a local community college in Michigan, in the hopes of becoming more attractive to employers. And then, finally, he was offered a chance through Hope Network to interview with Cascade Engineering, a manufacturer in Grand Rapids. He had the chance to build a real career.


“I was given an opportunity. There was no difference between myself and someone with no criminal background,” he says. McKinley arrived at Cascade as entry-level press operator. Over the past few years, he’s risen in the ranks, becoming a supervisor before taking on his current role as something of an internal consultant at the company.

McKinley didn’t just get lucky with his Cascade job. The company, which for the past four years has billed itself as an “anti-racism organization,” has a policy of considering employees regardless of whether they have a criminal record. Lest you think that means Cascade is exposing itself to all sorts of hardened criminals, consider this: almost 30% of working-age adults in the U.S. have criminal records.

“A lot of times, employee applications have questions like: ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony, a misdemeanor, or been arrested? Some companies use this is as a filter to exclude. Often these policies have an impact on people of color,” says Kenyatta Brame, the executive vice president at Cascade Engineering. “What we’ve done is taken that question and moved it later on into the process. At Cascade, there is a separate team of executives to decide whether a criminal history will impact hiring.” The company considers a number of factors, including number of convictions, circumstances surround the conviction, rehabilitation, and employment record.

Today, Cascade has dozens of former prisoners on its roster. It’s not the only company in the Grand Rapids, Michigan, area to take up the cause, either. Along with a handful of other organizations, including Butterball Farms and Grand Rapids Community College, Cascade leads something called the 30-2-2 initiative, which aims to work with 30 local organizations that will each hire two individuals with criminal background and track them for two years. The goal is to prove that there is a real business case for hiring formerly incarcerated employees.

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“We want statistics and empirical evidence,” says Brame.

Chris White, managing director of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business sees Cascade’s policy and the larger 30-2-2 program as part of a trend wherein companies try to make a contribution to society beyond their core business. “We’re seeing in business schools that students want this in the workplace. It’s part of a larger shift,” he says.

White also points to research from his colleague Kim Cameron that explores the relationships between generosity, compassion, and forgiveness with business outcomes. As for McKinley, his criminal record is a non-issue among coworkers. “Once I revealed it, most of them didn’t believe it,” he says.

About the author

Ariel Schwartz is a Senior Editor at Co.Exist. She has contributed to SF Weekly, Popular Science, Inhabitat, Greenbiz, NBC Bay Area, GOOD Magazine and more.

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