Richard Palmer, president of Nehemiah Manufacturing, was on a mission. He didn’t know how or when it would happen, he just knew that it would.
He wanted to provide jobs for people in Cincinnati who were unable to find them.
First, he created a company he called Nehemiah, named after the prophet who rallied the inhabitants of Jerusalem to rebuilt the walls to protect their city. The company’s mission is to rebuild the city of Cincinnati by giving people jobs and a “renewed hope for the future.”
The next step was to find a product line. He and his management team at Nehemiah had experience at P&G and in the packaging good industry, so that was the place to start. In 2009 the company secured the license to manage the Pampers Kandoo line of toddler products from P&G.
When he opened the doors, one of the first people who came to him looking for a job was a former felon. Palmer hired him immediately. It worked out so well that currently 90% of his workforce of 130 is comprised of returning citizens, which is the correct term for former felons.
“The loyalty of these workers and the productivity is just amazing,” says Palmer. “It’s been a great business decision with a high rate of retention, which is especially important given the labor shortage.” Nehemiah’s turnover is less than 20%, which is about one-third of what most companies in this industry experiences.
The company grew quickly. In addition to working with P&G, the company works with other companies to license/acquire brands and launch new product concepts. They design, manufacture, market and sell brands in a variety of product categories. Current brands include Dreft, Febreeze, Downy Ball, and Saline Soothers.
Due to the growth, the company was operating out of several locations throughout Greater Cincinnati but wanted to bring operations under one roof.
The ideal location presented itself as it was based in an area where the population was chronically unemployed, which was exactly the workforce that Palmer wanted to employ.
The city of Cincinnati had purchased a site that was undeveloped due to a past fire and cleaned it up hoping to attract manufacturing to the area.
In April of 2017, the Port Authority used its lease structure to assist in the development of a new 182,000 square foot facility for Nehemiah on a 7.7-acre site in Lower Price Hill. The Port’s financing is a portion of the overall incentives and assistance provided to Nehemiah by the City of Cincinnati, REDI Cincinnati and JobsOhio, from which it received a $300,000 revitalization grant. The building, which opened in June of 2018, cost $12 million.
“Nehemiah’s new location illustrates that companies want to grow in Cincinnati’s urban core – to provide accessibility for their workforce and easily tap into our transportation infrastructure,” said Laura Brunner, CEO of The Port. “The Port is proud to support a company that provides a second chance to its employees with our public finance program.”
Providing economic development assistance to companies is how Cincinnati envisions its growth, “By revitalizing the area and adding jobs, the Nehemiah project is another great example of how lives are changed through economic growth,” said Kimm Lauterbach, CEO, REDI Cincinnati.
Helping Returning Citizens Get Back to Work
While offering second chance opportunities to returning citizens has been going on for years, more programs have been created recently in order to fill the growing number of vacant jobs in manufacturing and other sectors. With almost 700,000 people released from prison each year, it’s a large pool of workers.
One way to show returning citizens that they are welcome is to stop asking them about their past. Many states, 29 to be exact, have passed “ban the box” laws which pushes employers to delay criminal background checks until later in the application process. This way potential candidates were not immediately dismissed.
Industry is in on the act as well. Trade groups including the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Retail Federation and the National Restaurant Association are backing a “Getting Talent Back to Work” pledge, created by the Society for Human Resource Management, based on the passage of the First Step Act, which was signed into law by President Trump in December 2018.
These industry groups, along with other companies, and government bodies, have publicly stated their intentions to recruit and hire people with criminal records. The broad range of groups signing this pledge reflects the more expansive opportunities being given to returning citizens.
Giving people a second chance is a core philosophy of Palmer's and is front and center on his company’s website. And to make the second chance transition successful, the company provides life coaching and on-site social workers.
Explaining how life-altering this is for employees and the business he says, “The rewards over the past five years have been amazing. In this group, we find rare diamonds – some of the hardest working people we’ve ever seen. In proving themselves, these employees become fiercely loyal – insistent on high quality; positive teamers who help each other; hard chargers who self-sacrifice for the success of all.”
Having strong business metrics to accompany the mission, Palmer approached other business and encouraged them to do the same and welcome returning citizens to their workforce.
The result was an organization called Beacon of Hope Alliance, which is a partnership of private employers, nonprofits, legal services and religious organizations. The group, which has a physical presence at Nehemiah, offers a blueprint for area companies to learn how to recruit returning citizens Over 80 companies joined and to date over 500 people have been hired.
But the numbers only tell part of the story. To truly understand the effect these opportunities you need only to hear from an employee of Nehemiah who said that if it weren’t for this job, he might be back in jail or dead.