Andrew Jackson, president and CEO of packaging manufacturer Elsons International, looks for the same things in ex-offender job candidates as in candidates without a criminal record: a team player, a willingness to learn and work hard and a good attitude. And one additional quality: “We just want to know that you know what you did,” he says. “You paid your debt to society, and you want to have a chance like everybody else. We’re looking for somebody who made a mistake, knows they made a mistake, and has a decent story to tell.”
Jackson’s company is one of 10 manufacturers in the Cleveland area participating in a hiring program for ex-offenders called ACCESS to Manufacturing Careers. Launched in 2020 by MAGNET, Northeast Ohio’s Manufacturing Extension Partnership, ACCESS aims to help remedy a manufacturing-worker shortage in the area (there were 8,000 unfilled jobs in a recent survey) by providing an “on-ramp” to manufacturing careers. Some 3,000 people are released from prison each year in Cuyahoga County, where Cleveland is located.
The idea is to provide not just connections with employers but support services to prepare candidates for the workplace. Partners include a job readiness non-profit, Towards Employment, and manufacturing organization Precision Metalforming Association, which helped with curriculum development. The Nordson Corp. Foundation was among the funders.
ACCESS graduated its first class of 12 during the pandemic, making a quick turn from traditional classrooms to Chromebooks and hotspots (and temperature checks, extra sanitation and Plexiglas dividers for in-person learning).
Jackson, whose 25-person workforce is about half ex-offenders, was key have on board: He was already known in the community as a successful employer of ex-offenders. Jackson, whose company makes corrugated containers (he also owns several non-manufacturing companies), spoke to IndustryWeek about the best practices (and rewards) of giving a second chance to “a person who has made a mistake and decided they want to come back and have a chance to get a good job with a decent wage and feed their families and get the benefits like anybody else.”
How do you talk to a job candidate about their criminal background?
We want to know what happened. What were the consequences? And are you ready to be a good citizen, and a good community person? If we’re convinced of that, we hire you. It’s more difficult with repeat offender. When I hear, “I went to jail for three or four years and I got out, I was out for about two years and then joined this other crowd and went back,” it’s not ideal. We’ll listen to your story and see what the issue was. But multiple robberies, or murder or rape, those are non-starters.
For the most part, I get very little recidivism. And the turnover rate for ex-offenders is no different from the turnover rate for people working for us who have not offended. For helping them with what they are trying to do—get back into society—they are very appreciative, and in turn they are dedicated employees. And that’s what I love about it—they reciprocate by being good employees, and they can, believe it or not, be model workers for your other employees who are not offenders.
You’ve been doing this on your own for a while. How has the ACCESS partnership been beneficial?
The first thing I like about the Manufacturing Sector Partnership is that it’s a collaborative effort. You need someone who is going to spend time with the ex-offender, make sure they re-indoctrinate them back into the day-to-day work society. There may be four or five agencies around town who are, in some form or fashion, in the business of trying to get re-entry people into the workforce. But me as an employer, I want one-stop-shop. I want you to all get together and do what you do, to make them the ideal candidate for me. And so by the time I get them, they’ve got some people skills, some factory skills, some interview skills. They’ve got their resume together. It makes it easier for me than to have to go to five agencies to get different things.
Even with training, there must be some adjustment for someone who has recently been released from prison.
We have a very empathetic team. They know that an ex-offender has come from a background that is very rigid. And so when somebody is having a bad day, or they kind of go off the rail, we try to say, “Hold on, let’s calm down for a sec, what’s wrong?” And we find that after you do that a couple of times, you don’t have to keep doing it.”
It’s important in the first couple of instances to let them know, “Hey, I’m on your team.” I’m not the security guard, and I’m not the warden. They sometimes get those confused: “He’s trying to tell me what to do and I don’t like it.” It’s important to explain, “Well, he has to, because he’s the supervisor. He’s not just telling you what to do, he’s telling the other six or seven people on the team what to do, too.”
You’ve got to iron the wrinkles out. Once you iron the wrinkles out, you don’t have to worry about them.
How much do you pay your workers and are there paths for career development?
Our minimum is $12 an hour. After a 90-day probation period, we look at increasing your pay rate. Our pay maxes out at about $23 an hour. In addition to salary, we give them matching 401K up to 5%, full health, dental and vision benefits, a $25,000 life insurance policy and a bonus program. And we also celebrate, which, like that life insurance policy, might seem like a very small thing but is important. We celebrate everybody’s birthday as their day with a cake. Some of them haven’t really celebrated their birthday before.
When you start out with us, you’re just a laborer—you pick up the boxes and you load on the line. And then you can move to being a team lead in that area—understanding what metrics are in place and how many. The third level is operator, with some of the more complex machines. And then manager in shipping, receiving and in the processing area.
Can you tell me about one of your ex-offender workers who is really shining?
Yeah, a gentleman at my company spent 19 years in prison. He got out in 2007, and from 2007 to 2012, he probably had 10 jobs. He would go put an application in and not tell people he was a felon, and once they found out, they would have to release him because he had avoided telling people. He was in a Catch-22. We hired him. He was a great worker, but rigid in his approach. After about five or six months, you could see a change in him. He was softer with the employees. He was more diplomatic in his approach to people and became a real team player. After about a year and a half, we promoted him to team lead. He’s our spokesperson whenever employers through the Manufacturing Sector Partnership want to talk to someone who’s been incarcerated.
Was there anything in your experience that opened you up to hiring ex-offenders?
I grew up on the East Side of Cleveland in a low- to moderate-income neighborhood—let’s just say “poor.” It had a whole diverse set of people—good kids, not-so-good kids and bad kids. And the bad kids ended up doing bad things and going to jail, and some of us decided we weren’t going to do bad things. My dad parked cars for a living and my mom cleaned offices. And out of that, I got some good core values, which are “work hard, work hard to earn what you deserve, and get an education so people don’t look down on you.”
I ended up going to Cleveland State University and getting a degree in accounting. And during that time, I got in a program called Inroads—a program for inner-city kids. We were talented kids. But we were just not very refined. We didn’t know how to read the Wall Street Journal, we didn’t know how to dress for success. So the Inroads program was my cultivation, and I graduated and interned at a National Bank. I became the second worldwide African-American partner for Accenture in the world—we had two African-Americans out of 1,000 partners.
Was that tough?
It was very lonely. I’ll tell you a side story. I never, ever traveled when I was a kid. Our neighborhood was our neighborhood. I commuted to college. And my first travel experience was going to a three-week training for Accenture (then Arthur Andersen), in Chicago. We had a training facility just north in St. Charles, Illinois. With over 100,000 employees, there might be 400 kids starting in one class—people from all over the world.
That was in 1978. I did not know that Accenture did not have very many African-Americans. They met us at the airport with big Greyhound buses. I go to the first bus and get on. And there’s no Black people on the bus. I’m like, okay, let me go to the other one. There are about eight buses. I get on I get off, go to the next bus—there are no Black people. And I call home and I tell my mom, “I think I’m coming home tomorrow. There are no minorities on here.” I was going to quit.
So your mom helped talk you off the ledge?
Once we got to St. Charles, I figured, “okay, there’s just nobody on the bus.” The school held about 1,000 kids. There were different classes going on. I walked in, there were no Black kids.
For the first week, I ate by myself, I dormed by myself. I was just zoned out. And after about a week I said to myself, “Andrew, you can’t do this because you’re going to be a very lonely man." So ultimately I just started meeting people and I had a great time. And so that was my career everywhere I would go. It was all majority people. But what I did in my 25 years at Accenture, I became the partner in charge of diversity, in addition to my regular-line job. It was a hobby job, to increase diversity. By the time I left, we had 25 more partners—in my 25 years, I got 25 more African-American partners.
Are you seeing other manufacturers being open to hiring ex-offenders?
What we have found is they’re getting around to it. And I think the market is going to push it even more because the workforce is shrinking. And the manufacturing workers are retiring—you have to replace them with somebody. Right wrong or indifferent, there’s a nice population of former incarcerated people coming back out. So you almost have to look at it.
The sector partnership is good because we have a good blend of people who are doing it, people who are thinking about doing it, and people who are just trying to get their arms around it. And I think the value of it is that others get a chance to see what people are doing, their experiences, and talk about it.
Got a manufacturing candidate for Profiles in Leadership? Contact IndustryWeek leadership reporter Laura Putre.