The same pandemic that sent millions of Americans to work from home also created an opportunity for many others to go to work for the first time, as many new job openings went unfilled.
Those who have been convicted of crimes or had other involvement with the criminal justice system, which would have prevented them from getting jobs or making them much more difficult to obtain previously, were getting hired.
And it was manufacturers who were often leading the way, say those who have led efforts to employ potential workers with a criminal record. After all, manufacturing is one of those things you can’t do remotely, but during the pandemic many new openings were going unfilled.
“There was a growing awareness this was an untapped pool of talent even before the pandemic," said Jill Rizika CEO of Towards Employment in Cleveland. “But with the pandemic and the labor-pool pressures it caused, a lot more employers have been looking at how they can enlarge their labor pool, especially manufacturers.”
Towards Employment was already working with MAGNET, the chief manufacturing support and advocacy agency in the region, when COVID struck.
They’d been working together since 2019. That's when MAGNET formed its Access to Manufacturing Careers program to help the formerly incarcerated and other people with challenges in their backgrounds or circumstances to find work with area manufacturers who were starving for employees, said MAGNET's director of sector partnership, Tom McGraw.
Towards Employment works as MAGNET’s contractor to recruit participants and train them to work in manufacturing jobs. The training included teaching them skills that manufacturers said they needed, in areas such as metrology, shop math or the soft skills needed for dealing with customers, contractors and coworkers.
The agency was all set to launch its first cohort when the pandemic struck, “so we did a switch to do it all virtually,” Rizika said.
That was a disappointment, but not really much of a setback. Towards Employment did much of its work online for the first two years of the program, but since 2022 has largely returned to in-person training and counseling, she said.
To date, the program has 220 graduates, representing an 80% completion rate, Rizika said. Two-thirds of those have been placed in jobs and 70% are still in those jobs after 90 days, she reports. Those numbers aren’t perfect, but the work can be challenging. Towards Employment often not only trains its participants but helps them with housing, transportation and other items needed to manage their lives and be dependable as employees.
Michael Relliford is a recent graduate of the Access program. He credits it with his success in finding his current job, which he said he loves, at Jergens, a big manufacturer of parts and fixtures used by machine shops and others.
Relliford had just served 10 years in federal prison when he started training with Access at the beginning of 2023. Relliford said he and other graduates had multiple job offers and described the day that 11 manufacturers came to interview graduating candidates as the equivalent of an NFL draft day.
“That’s exactly what it was,” Relliford said. “I ended up doing maybe six interviews. I had three second (round) interviews and three offers. ... I ended up choosing Jergens.”
The work environment, benefits, and paid time off for vacation or in the event he got sick, were all selling points he said – but the choice was a tough one.
“These companies were not BS companies. I passed on Lincoln Electric,” Relliford said. “It was all real companies with real careers.”
Relliford said he came into the program a bit skeptical. A lot of times, people say they want to help but don’t deliver, he said, so he was prepared for that. But he was pleasantly surprised.
“A lot of places, especially when they’re dealing with convicted felons, they look good on paper but they’re not really doing what they say they’re doing. But these guys? They’re for real,” he said of Towards Employment, MAGNET, and the manufacturers they work with. “I finished the program in February and had a job in March. It’s legit.”
Now he’s an ambassador for the Access program, referring others to it from the halfway house where he lived and even to close family members, not to mention the media.
“Whatever they need – I’m there,” Relliford said. “Because I’m very appreciative of the opportunities that were afforded to me... I even referred my oldest daughter.”
Many entry-level manufacturing jobs often have high turnover rates and hires from the Access to Manufacturing program often perform better than the hires that manufacturers make on their own.
“I would say Access graduates come in at a very similar entry-level spot to other hires, but accelerate faster," said Adam Snyder, chief operating officer at Talan Products, a metal stamping company on Cleveland’s East Side.
That’s thanks to both the training and the support they get from Towards Employment, Snyder said, so even if they’ve never worked in manufacturing before, they have measurement skills and can read blueprints.
“They come in with some foundational skills most folks don’t grow up with, like how to use a micrometer,” Snyder said.
The Access program itself is an exercise in discipline and a proving ground for potential new employees, Rizika said.
“Folks who’ve spent time with us ... it's someone who’s been more vetted than anyone you’ll hire off the streets,” she said.
Currently, 10 of the people who work at Talan’s 85-person shop went through the program, Snyder said, including his night-shift supervisor who graduated from Access in 2020. Others work in quality control and robotic welding at Talan.
Talan also offers its new hires apprenticeships in running, maintaining, and setting up its big presses. Snyder said he plans to offer two of those to Access graduates in January. He said his success with hiring from the program and what he’s seen from Rizika and her people have only made him more confident in the program.
“I give Jill and her team a ton of credit. It’s a unique skillset in the workforce development space to be able to talk to employers and understand their needs,” Snyder said.
Meanwhile, manufacturers’ interest in the Access program remains strong, McGaw said. To date, MAGNET has had between 25 and 30 manufacturers hire from the program, he said, but there are 18 participating in 2023 alone.
Rizika is hoping this will be Towards Employment’s best year yet with the Access program. “Our goal this year is 90 placements,” she said.
The work here has not gone unnoticed outside of Northeast Ohio, either.
The Ohio Manufacturers’ Association won a $23.5 million federal grant in 2022 to put toward training and preparing people of all sorts for jobs in manufacturing. MAGNET worked with the OMA on a re-entry component of that, and the OMA has been taking the Access model statewide as a result.
“Now, 15 other markets in Ohio are running a similar program as this,” McGaw said.
Rizika thinks the more people who hire people with criminal records and succeed with them, the more her program and others will succeed. She already sees attitudes changing, she said.
“We see employers bringing more flexibility and looking for more ways to say yes instead of just ways to say no,” Rizika said.