Final Word: A second chance

If the lack of good workers is holding your business back, let me bring to your attention a group that holds great potential and is almost always overlooked – ex-convicts.

That might seem like a too-radical proposition for many, but I would ask you this: how many ex-convicts do you know? As it happens, I know quite a few, and if all you know of convicts and criminals comes from movies, television or politicians, I would wager that you’re getting bad information.

For example: years ago my dad hired a guy, let’s call him Dwayne, to help out on his farm as a laborer, mechanic and jack of all trades. Dwayne was always a hard worker and loyal employee, but – to make a long story short – he was accused of a crime, got a terrible public defender and a vindictive district attorney. They offered him a reduced sentence in return for a guilty plea. He refused and spent the next 10 years behind bars. Last year he was dumped out of the system a physical, mental and emotional wreck. But, thanks to the efforts of my family and a tight knit community of farmers, he’s gotten the medical care he needs, found work and is putting his life back together.

My point is this: Dwayne is a brilliant mechanic and an extremely hard worker. Every piece of machinery he ever touched, no matter how old or in what condition, runs better after he’s worked on it than the day it came off the assembly line. It didn’t matter what kind of machinery it was: two-stroke, four-stroke, gas, diesel, trucks, tractors, shelling and harvesting equipment, irrigation systems – anything. If you were looking for a laborer, operator or a mechanic, you couldn’t have found a better man than Dwayne – but you have to be looking in the right place.

Another eye opener for me has been the volunteer work I do once a month providing employment counseling to a group of ex-convicts living in a half-way house called the House of Hope. Of the dozen or so ex-convicts I’ve gotten to know during this time, about half have graduated from the program and are leading successful lives. The other half are making progress toward graduation. Most have decent manual skills – welding, auto mechanics, landscaping, carpentry, cabinet making, drywall, etc. What they all have in common is a determination to stay on the straight and narrow and do whatever they have to do to stay out of jail. And they want a second chance – not just for a job, but to prove themselves.

Another characteristic I’ve noticed in the House of Hope is that nobody carries a chip on his shoulder. They acknowledge their pasts, but they don’t dwell on them. They’re forward looking, and more grateful than most of us will ever be for the jobs they have, and things we often take for granted, for the freedom just to enjoy the smell of good coffee and the sight of a sunrise each morning.

Hiring ex convicts is not as simple as hiring from other labor pools. You need to work with your state employment agency and department of corrections. I also recommend you look for a resource like the House of Hope or other half-way houses. These programs typically get the inmates the parole boards deem likely to succeed and do their own screening as well reducing your risks considerably.

If that’s what you’re looking for – employees who wake up grateful and motivated every morning, who value their freedom and are willing to work hard to keep it, who want a second chance to prove themselves, who aren’t afraid to work hard and get their hands dirty – you could do a lot worse.