Industry Watch

Bernard Prince at the Kinnix warehouse in Bloomington.

Putting the 'unemployable' to work

Alternative staffing agency EmergeWORKS finds jobs for former inmates and others.

By Erica Rivera*
Monday, August 17, 2015

In the midst of a labor shortage, some companies are finding success hiring the so-called unemployables, such as those with a criminal record. The matchmaker is Minnesota’s only alternative staffing agency, EmergeWORKS, a Minneapolis nonprofit. While some industries simply can’t hire people with certain criminal records, Sue Von, enterprise manager at EmergeWORKS, is ready with persuasive arguments why most employers should reconsider this undervalued resource. Her biggest reason is that these people are so happy to have a job that they tend to stick with it.

“Turnover costs an employer one-and-a-half times the salary of the person that’s left,” she says. “That’s lost training opportunities, lost sales opportunities, pressures on the staff to fill the void. If we can increase the retention rate, we’re saving that employer money that they can redirect to operational growth, new marketing opportunities, product development. It really adds up. The larger the company, the more significant it is.”

In demand

Demand for EmergeWORKS’ clients from local businesses is increasing, particularly in manufacturing. “About 71% of manufacturers say they’re having a difficult time attracting and retaining talent,” says Madeline Graham, communications coordinator for Emerge Community Development, the nonprofit parent of EmergeWORKS, citing the eighth annual State of Manufacturing survey.

One of those manufacturers is Kinnix Group, a Bloomington-based producer of multi-layer blown plastic films used to wrap up items such as pallets or bales of hay. Shortly after founding the company three years ago, CEO Jared Hummel hired an employee who happened to be a client of EmergeWORKS; the employee put the company in touch with the organization. “We sat down and heard their story and it really meshed with ours,” Hummel says. “They’ve evolved a lot over the last couple of years and brought on a lot of new programs and initiatives. We saw it could be a partnership instead of just a business transaction.”

A total of 14 Kinnix employees have been hired from EmergeWORKS; half of those are still with the company. “The retention has been good and I expect it to get better with our growth,” Hummel says. Four have been with the company since it opened its factory two years ago.

Two have worked their way up from packager to operator to shift lead positions, including Bernard Prince, 34, who is now an overnight line operator supervisor.

“Go to Emerge”

Earlier in his life, Prince had made his living on the streets until he ended up serving four years in prison.

“When I was in the joint,” says Prince, “I changed my attitude all around: ‘When I get out, I don’t want to sell drugs, I don’t want to do this and do that, I want to keep a positive image of myself.’ When I got out, I still had the same attitude, but I was living check by check struggling to keep a job that paid $8 an hour. The way I was feeling, I was in a state of mind of going back into the street life.

“I was telling a friend, ‘Man, I’m tired of temp services sending me to jobs and one week I’m working and next week I’m not.’ And he’s like, ‘Go to Emerge.’ He told me the address and the phone number, and I called up there and they told me what I had to do to get in the road.”

At EmergeWORKS, Prince found a job coach to encourage him and guide him on his job search. He attended a week-long Job Club, which trains job seekers how to dress and speak during interviews, and what to put on job applications. It worked. Prince was hired by Kinnix as a maintenance technician, and has been climbing the ladder ever since.

But he’s not done climbing. Prince still visits EmergeWORKS to greet people and to look into training opportunities, such as getting a truck driver’s license. His long term goal is to buy a house, start a family and revive (in name) the mechanic shop his father once ran in Kankakee, Illinois: BP Auto Repair.

Even those employees who left didn’t do so under negative circumstances; in one case, after two years of employment at Kinnix, an employee who had relocated to Minnesota to turn his life around had enough work experience and stability to return to Ohio, where his children live. Another employee left after two years to pursue electrical training in a certificate program and now works for the City of Minneapolis. “A lot of them have used this as a stepping stone to further their personal and professional goals,” Hummel says of his former employees. “That’s okay with us. That’s what we want.”

Second chances

Most, if not all, of Hummel’s EmergeWORKS hires came with criminal backgrounds. “For us, there’s no hesitation,” he says. “We want to focus on our core values as a company over a resume or background. We looked for people who had the same drive and work ethic that we had as a young start-up company.”

With the temp-to-hire program, the employer has a 240-hour window (approximately six weeks) to ensure that the employee is a good fit for the company. In the case of Kinnix, Hummel couldn’t be more pleased with the program. “Most of the employees with a criminal background understand that their opportunities are limited compared to their counterparts; what we’ve found is they work diligently to prove themselves in our company,” he says. “Life is about second chances. People who understand that excel in our company.”

Though EmergeWORKS is the only alternative staffing agency in the state, there are approximately 65 similar programs around the country. The alternative staffing model emphasizes permanent employment opportunities and offers the support services to overcome obstacles. “Our goal is to try and place individuals in jobs where they’re going to be self-sustaining and build personal wealth,” says Von.

EmergeWORKS doesn’t see unemployment stemming from an achievement gap so much as from a skills gap. To that end, Emerge Community Development opened a new Career and Technology Center and partners with Hennepin Technical College to offer skills training and place clients in entry-level positions where they can earn higher than minimum wage. Clients can also access GED programs, financial counseling, work readiness training (for soft skills) and transportation services.

Over the past two years, Emerge Community Development has served more than 80 zip codes in Minnesota. “Businesses are moving farther out — there’s more land available, there are more tax incentives,” Von says. “Public transportation is trying to keep up, but it’s not keeping up. That’s where our services have become necessary.”

With a fleet of vehicles, Emerge Community Development has given about 13,000 rides to different jobs over the past two years. “We can go out to Lakeville, Shakopee, Elk River, Rodgers — places where they can’t get employees because of transportation. The program that we have is critical.”

Transportation also allows clients to accept jobs that include night and weekend shifts that they might otherwise have to pass on. “We operate 24/7,” Von says. “We have not missed a day, even for weather.”

EmergeWORKS’ involvement doesn’t stop when clients leave the classroom or find employment, either; services are available for clients for up to a year post-hire.

“They’ve been a support to us, but more importantly, they’re such good support for their clients,” Hummel says. “After we’ve hired people on, [EmergeWORKS] stayed in contact and helped them break down barriers. I don’t think other comparable services provide that.”

With 20 years of service to the community, EmergeWORKS initially began as New U Temps, a part of Pillsbury United Communities. In 2006, the agency broke off from Pillsbury and one year later became Emerge Community Development, a stand-alone non-profit entity. EmergeWORKS is a social enterprise operated by that parent company.

Primarily self-sustaining, EmergeWORKS is the only revenue-generating part of Emerge Community Development. The organization does charge fees for the statutory costs of employment — payroll taxes, unemployment, workers’ comp — and a small administrative fee to cover payroll costs, which is included in the bill rate. There is also some reliance on the parent agency for funding.

“Emerge helped me pull myself out of that hole,” says Prince. “Everybody always asks me, ‘How did you get the job?’ ‘You go through Emerge.’ ‘Where’s Emerge?’ ‘On Broadway and Emerson.’ ‘What’s the phone number?’ I get them the phone number, the address, who to speak to, I mean, I’m here to help the next person. If I was helped, I’m here to help the next person.”


*Steve LeBeau also contributed to this article