SOUTH SALT LAKE, Utah — Companies across northern Utah, struggling to fill open positions, are turning to a new source for hiring: former prisoners.
On the manufacturing floor of Powerblanket, the CEO Brent Reddekopp greets workers by name as he walks around.
“Hi Eddie, how are you doing?”
They wave or smile or fistbump back.
Powerblanket makes heating and cooling wraps of all sizes, from coffee cup to jet engines. They are growing fast. But they have a problem.
“We need employees,” said Reddekopp.
Reddekopp serves on the board of the Utah Manufacturers Association. He also meets with the Homebuilders Association and knows the struggles of manufacturing and construction industries in Utah.
“Both of us are at a shortage of jobs,” he said.
He decided to give felons and ex-convicts a try. He has been volunteering on the weekends at the Utah State Prison.
“They paid their debt to society, they come out, they need a job, they need housing and they need transportation,” he explained.
And he hasn’t looked back.
“They come in, they are very stable, they are very loyal, they are hardworking. They know we give them a chance here at Powerblanket, and so they are very loyal to us,” said Reddekopp.
“It’s true that with a tight job market many manufacturing companies are desperate to find employees to meet production needs, and are having a difficult time,” said Sterling Barker, with the Utah Society for Human Resource Management.
Barker said a previous company struggled to fill positions.
“We had to raise the amount we were willing to pay candidates, and we hired employees with a criminal record whose crimes were not fraud-, violence-, or sex-related – though there were exceptions,” he explained.
They did individualized assessments, as required by the EEOC. One of those employees had an involuntary manslaughter conviction that did not show up on a 7-year background check. He was upfront and honest about serving time, and he was one of the best employees they had.
Division of Workforce Services Chief Economist Carrie Mayne says this is a population in the past that would find it difficult to get employment. But now it’s such a tight labor market, things have changed.
“We tell people who had given up on looking for work because of barriers that they experienced, now is time to re-energize their work search because those barriers may not be barriers anymore,” she said.
The Utah unemployment rate is down to 3 percent.
Mayne says DWS can help employers get creative in finding new workers, like those leaving a correctional facility, but also refugees, immigrants, retirees, teens, people with disabilities, and more.
“There is going to have to be a mind shift because these special populations we are talking about do have barriers. You have things you might need to get over. But working with your industry partners you can develop strategies around this,” she said.
Barker said his previous company did not do background checks on every employee, and a new sales hire ended up stealing thousands of dollars from them. So they now make background checks and drug screening routine.
Powerblanket had struggles keeping hires from work-release or the halfway houses. They would go through dozens of people, which is expensive for a small business. But Reddekopp says he has 5 or 6 former convicts now employed with them and they are working out well.
“Their confidence, if you would have seen them, how they walked in the first few months, and see them walk now, it is unbelievable,” said Reddekopp.
He knows the challenges. He often does random drug tests. But he is looking to expand this program to include youth correctional facilities and to teach ex-offenders life skills as they work on getting them housing and transportation. He is getting help from organizations like One Heart.
“Are we really going to walk the talk, right?”
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