Companies and job-placement organizations in West Michigan say an executive order signed by Gov. Rick Snyder comes as a good first step in addressing the state’s skilled trades shortage.
As well, they say the move also helps end a stigma around hiring employees with criminal convictions.
On Sept. 7, Snyder’s order directed state departments to remove a box on job applications that asks whether potential employees have been convicted of a felony. The order also applies to people seeking occupational and construction code licenses through the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs.
It’s a first step for Michigan to “ban the box.” While he stopped short of calling for statewide legislation to apply it to the private sector, Snyder encouraged employers to follow suit to address Michigan’s skilled trades shortage.
“We were thrilled,” said Merri Bennett, business services director for the Michigan Works! West Central Office, which covers Mason, Oceana, Osceola, Newaygo, Mecosta and Lake counties.
“The No. 1 complaint we hear across the state from employers is they can’t find people to fill their jobs,” Bennett said. “From a practical standpoint, clearly this is a step in the right direction.”
Snyder’s order was praised by groups across the political spectrum, including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Michigan League for Public Policy and the American Civil Liberties Union.
The groups say Snyder’s order will make it easier for people with criminal records to gain employment, which has been shown to lower the probability someone will reoffend.
Michigan joins 32 other states in banning the box, according to the Michigan League for Public Policy.
“When you have talent shortages like we do, we need to reduce and remove any barriers we can to get people into the workforce,” said Andy Johnston, vice president of government and corporate affairs with the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce. “If we give folks a chance, they can be contributing employees. It’s also a great way to reduce recidivism overall. It’s not just the right thing, it’s the smart thing to do for the economy.”
KEEPING IT VOLUNTARY
However, leading business groups have opposed Democrats’ efforts to pass statewide ban-the-box legislation. The groups also supported Snyder’s signing of a bill prohibiting local units of government from adopting ban-the-box ordinances.
The Michigan Chamber of Commerce maintains that banning the box in the private sector should be up to employers.
“We simply want employers and employees to go into job interviews with eyes wide open,” said Wendy Block, vice president of business advocacy with the Michigan Chamber. She added that federal law already prevents employment discrimination, requiring companies to use the box on applications “responsibly.”
“Further state efforts to limit the box are unnecessary,” Block added. “We don’t support legislation that ties employers’ hands behind their back. That’s what these efforts do.”
Instead, the Michigan Chamber has supported incentives for employers to hire returning citizens, including a 2014 law that limits legal exposure to companies hiring parolees with a Certificate of Employability from the state.
Johnston said companies have already been voluntarily banning the box.
“With (Snyder’s) announcement, he is respecting what he’s heard from other companies and organizations that have had concerns with those legislative proposals,” Johnston said. “All employers need to look at it individually.”
Companies that have made the change say they are seeing results.
Hudsonville-based trucking firm ALTL Inc. removed the box from applications several years ago, according to President Claren Lau. Two years ago, ALTL joined a program administered by the Department of Corrections that helps place parolees into jobs.
“There should be a statewide ban on the box for the private and public sector. It’s how you handle it during the interview,” Lau said, referring to background checks and other pre-employment requirements.
A NEW TALENT POOL
Lau said the company’s decision came as the trucking industry faces a shortage of drivers.
At one point, the company had as many as 10 employees come through the program in a fleet of 100 drivers. Employees still need to be drug-free and have a valid drivers license, Lau said, in addition to meeting their parole requirements. Questions about their criminal backgrounds come up in the interview process.
“We were a little concerned when we started in the program,” Lau said, adding that it has been well-received among employees. “With the labor issues in West Michigan in particular, I see a lot more people open to this.”
The state Department of Corrections provides vocational training at some of its facilities and works closely with nonprofits to help prisoners find work upon re-entry. In the Grand Rapids area, those partners include Hope Network, Goodwill Industries of West Michigan and WorkSolved.
Angie Sprank, the community coordinator for the West Central and West Shoreline Offender Success program, consults with the Department of Corrections and helps place parolees with employers.
Sprank said approximately 250 employers in the region, including in Kent County, hire returned citizens through the program, with about 1,400 offenders in the program annually.
The state parole board determines who qualifies for the program, which also helps offenders find housing, clothing and counseling and provides access to vital documents for identification. Once a parolee is linked with an employer, the state tracks job retention for a year.
“As soon as someone is paroled, we know ahead of time if they will need employment,” Sprank said. “We’re not going to turn anyone away who’s referred by the department.”
Initially, employers were hesitant to participate, she added. For example, some companies asked what happens if there’s a fight involving a parolee on the job site.
“What they learn quickly is they don’t have those issues,” Sprank said. “The issues you have is the same with any population, like coming to work on time.”
Over the past three years, the number of employers participating in the program has grown and now includes 10 truck-driving companies in West Michigan. Welding, manufacturing and building trades are also common sectors involved with the program.
“Employers are realizing that they’re missing out on this talent pool no one tapped into,” Sprank said.
Block from the Michigan Chamber recognizes this, but maintains it should be voluntary for employers.
“A lot of our members are looking at non-traditional employees in light of the talent crunch and are doing it without the government telling them ‘X, Y, Z,’” she said.
TIME FOR ACTION
Earlier this year, Cascade Engineering Inc. hired a new skilled trades worker at one of its Grand Rapids plants. But it took two tries to get into him into the company.
According to Jahaun McKinley, a plant manager with Cascade, the employee’s interviewing skills were “a little shaky” and he was passed over after the first interview. During the second, the applicant clearly knew about the skills involved with the job, McKinley said.
“He went into an explanation that he was a little rusty,” McKinley said. “I asked, ‘Why didn’t we hire him the first time?’”
The applicant revealed during the second interview that he had served time in prison, McKinley said. Cascade does not ask about prior convictions on its job application.
Company officials in the first interview “saw this gap in some of the knowledge required and him not knowing, as opposed to him being away and out of it for a while,” McKinley explained. “He’s been phenomenal.”
McKinley can relate. In 2010, he was hired as an entry-level operator at Cascade after serving 19 years in prison. When he was 18, he pleaded no contest to an assault charge following an incident in Muskegon. He served time in prisons across the state.
After being placed through Hope Network, McKinley has received multiple promotions, awards and profiles in local and statewide publications. He’s currently in Texas on a two-year assignment to get one of the company’s units “back on track.”
He says the state’s Department of Corrections has improved greatly in helping offenders re-enter the job market. While he called Snyder’s executive order a “good step,” the private sector and nonprofits have progressed in a more “unofficial” capacity.
“The support has always been there. (Snyder’s order) is just a validation that it was time to officially bring this thing out and support it at a higher level,” McKinley said. “When you limit the pool to pick from, you’re basically shutting your business off at some point.”
At ALTL, Lau said he initially had strict rules on not hiring employees with criminal sexual or violent crime histories. With the state’s placement program, though, parolees are vetted. He’s hired two drivers with such backgrounds.
“Each one of these individuals has a story. I was labeling people I probably shouldn’t have,” Lau said. “Until you know the whole story or facts, you don’t know an individual.”