Everyone talks about recidivism within our penal system, but some businesses are doing something about it.
While attending a recent meeting at the Workforce Center, someone mentioned an ongoing project with Smith Foundry. Intrigued, I set up a meeting with owner Neil Ahlstrom to learn more.
The idea goes back to the 1950s. In the 1950s through 1970s, Stillwater Prison had a working foundry on site where inmates were able to learn the skills of foundry work. Placement was done the way most of us network today: the guy running the foundry would call his friends in the industry when someone whom he’d like to place was getting out. Even then, the jobs were always forthcoming. In exchange for ready-made employees, the Minnesota foundries provided supplies and equipment for the Stillwater Prison foundry. Everyone benefited.
While the foundry at Stillwater no longer operates, Minncor Industries contacted Neil recently to discuss the role his business and industry could play in the re-entry network system. Following a meeting and tour of their programs, Neil quickly saw the opportunities and even had some ideas to conquer the obstacles. Neil says, “I really liked what I saw and I know how much all areas of manufacturing need good help.”
Neil and Minncor’s next step was to arrange a similar tour for the Metal Casters of MN Association. This was step one in marrying employer needs with potential employees and the start of resolving one of the obstacles, as the tour provided the manufacturers with an understanding of the program. In addition, everyone gained greater understanding of the challenges they would face together in making employment work. Chief among them are training, family crises, financial issues, housing needs, and often drug and alcohol counseling. Neil Ahlstrom and representatives from several professional organizations to which his business belongs have been meeting over the past six months with Minncor, the MN Dept. of Corrections, Hennepin County, RISE, the Mpls. Council of Churches, Alternatives to Violence, DEED, Anoka Technical College, and other partners to further develop a network and support system for people coming out of prison. They have aptly named their group the Reentry Resource Network.
In fact, Minncor has a number of job development and manufacturing programs within our correctional facilities, including carpentry, sheet metal working, welding, woodworking, office furniture and tractor assembly and more. For many years quality hay wagons were produced under the Minncor name. Today, many of our larger corporations competitively subcontract to the prison systems for manufacturing.
Smith Foundry and other businesses within the metal casting industry need more entry-level employees than Minncor can provide, which is one reason the program now includes Hennepin County and its workhouse facilities in Plymouth, Minnesota. These are stable companies who might very well provide life-long advancement in this industry. The partnerships that are developing are leaping another obstacle, the fear employers and managers have of hiring anyone who’s been incarcerated. Every new hire comes with some baggage, at least with Minncor the employer will know what issues the new employee will be facing and there will be resources to help both employee and employer. Neil says, “I’ve had very good success over the years hiring employees from programs such as this.” It’s testimonials like Neil’s that will bring other employers to the table with jobs. His advice to other employers is “be prepared and willing to give people a second chance. Who among us hasn’t benefited from that in the past?”