Busting Barriers

As talent crunch deepens, employers embrace non-traditional workers

Posted on Mar 12, 2020 :: Cover Story
Jessica Thiel
Posted by , Insight on Manufacturing Staff Writer

When the Great Recession reached its apex a little more than a decade ago, a typical unemployed worker could have been anyone. Today, that picture is drastically different.

In 2010, which saw unemployment rates as high as 9.2 percent, an unemployed person might have been a professional with a master’s degree, a recent college grad or a construction worker. Today, that person is often someone facing a hurdle that might take the form of a criminal record, a struggle with substance abuse, refugee status or a disability.

In the New North area, we have some of the lowest unemployment in the entire state, which means in some of these counties, you’re talking about not thousands of people looking for work but dozens or hundreds,” says Anthony Snyder, CEO of the Fox Valley Workforce Development Board. “If you’re still unemployed, you have some significant barriers that need to be addressed.”

In a time when the Job Center of Wisconsin lists more jobs than there are people to fill them, Snyder says he tries to impress upon employers that they can no longer recruit in the same ways they did in 2008 or 2009, when 20 to 30 people might have applied for one open position.

While poaching of workers from other manufacturers happens all the time, that’s not a viable solution either, he says. Employers that really want to fill roles need to understand today’s landscape and consider different kinds of candidates.

Many manufacturers that have adopted more open-minded hiring practices have found success. For example, the state’s Huber program, which allows certain inmates to work while serving time, has provided a reliable source of labor for companies such as Ariens Co. in Brillion.

The FVWDB also recently offered a month-long pre-apprenticeship course. The requirements were low: commit to attending all the sessions and pass a drug screen. By the end of the course, three companies had agreed to interview all 12 candidates.

Snyder sees programs such as this one as a win for workers and employers alike. Offering someone an apprenticeship is a big deal and an investment in a worker, he says. The pre-apprenticeship course opens doors for entry-level positions that can lead to full apprenticeships.

“Everyone who wants to work in this economy should be given an opportunity. Almost every company has some job that someone with even the toughest barrier should be able to do,” Snyder says.


Exceptional opportunities

Offering opportunities to a worker with a barrier, whether it’s a criminal record, a substance abuse problem or a disability, may seem intimidating at first, but doing so can pay dividends. Employers can fill critical roles and complete needed work, and workers get a chance to better their lives and make a positive impact.

That impact is evident at Lakeside Packaging Plus. With locations in Neenah and Oshkosh, the nonprofit’s services include providing employment activities for people with disabilities. It works with a broad spectrum of individuals, ranging from those with limited cognitive functioning and abilities to people who have advanced degrees but may have physical limitations, says Margaret Winn, CEO of Lakeside Packaging.

The organization works with companies including Hoffmaster Group, J. J. Keller & Associates and Castle Pierce. Workers’ tasks may include hand assembly such as bagging, collating and bailing as well as light assembly work.

To complete tasks, associates may need a variety of accommodations. This includes task lists for those who struggle with memory, sitting arrangements for people who can’t stand for long periods and wheelchair accessibility throughout the facility.

Winn says when vendors visit, they see the smiles on workers’ faces, showing the pride they take in their work. At the same time, securing subassembly contract is competitive, and companies don’t work with Lakeside Packaging just because it’s a feel-good endeavor, she says.

“Businesses need assistance getting things done. They’re under deadlines. Our associates come here to earn a paycheck. When businesses work with Lakeside, they’re helping people with some significant disabilities be productive and earn that paycheck,” Winn says.

Lakeside Packaging is always looking to work with new companies, and Winn says its customer base retention demonstrates the quality and consistency of its work. In recognition of that, J. J. Keller presented the organization with its Vendor of the Year award in 2006 and 2015.

Jerome Smith, pastor of Greater Praise Church of God in Christ in Milwaukee, and his organization work with people facing barriers that can include criminal records and spotty — or nonexistent — work histories. He founded the Joseph Project in 2015 after seeing the number of employers in Sheboygan County that needed laborers.

Orlando Owens, a staffer of Sen. Ron Johnson, reached out to Smith and asked if he thought he could help offer a solution. “I said, ‘Absolutely! This is amazing! Let’s figure it out. Let’s put the two counties together,’” Smith says.

Working with the Sheboygan County Economic Development Corp., Smith began to reach out to pastors at other congregations, asking them to send people who were seeking jobs. By October 2015, the Joseph Project had assembled its first cohort of 16 participants.

They signed up for an intensive four-day boot camp, and 14 from the group completed it. At the end of it, Kohler Co. offered all 14 graduates a job making bathtubs. Donors gave money for steel-toe boots and gas cards to fuel the church van that transported the group from Milwaukee to Sheboygan. Eventually, Kohler set up an account at a local gas station to cover fuel costs.

The Joseph Project focuses on providing soft skills and workplace readiness strategies. Since its inception, it has worked with around 600 men and women and grown its presence to include Wausau and Green Bay. It most recently began offering training in Sheboygan County in partnership with the Pentecostals of Sheboygan County.

Smith says a passion to help others drives him, and his program has proven successful for partnering businesses, which along with Kohler include Polyfab Corp., Nemak, CertainTeed and Johnsonville. Employers say their retention rate is better than what they’re getting off the street, with an average 12-month rate of about 58 percent and long-term rate of about 48 percent, he says.

Many Joseph Program graduates have gone on to find safe places to live for the first time in their lives. They’re earning living wages, and some have gone on to achieve milestones such as purchasing their first new car.

“I’m a mission-oriented person. I believe that we can build people up. I believe everybody is not as bad as people try to make them out to be. I believe that everybody deserves a second chance,” Smith says.

Neenah-based Apricity is all about providing second chances as well. A residential treatment program for people battling substance abuse problems, the nonprofit’s services include Apricity Contract Packaging, where those in treatment can work as part of their recovery program. Michelle Devine Giese, CEO of Apricity, says working helps build people’s self-esteem and aids in the recovery process.

Apricity formed out of the 2018 merger of STEP Industries and the Mooring Programs, which includes two AODA facilities: Mooring House for men and Casa Clare for Women. STEP Industries was founded in 1985 when a Kimberly-Clark executive identified unemployment as a problem for people in recovery. For a time, K-C was one of Apricity’s biggest customers.

Those in treatment are encouraged but not required to work for Apricity Contract Packaging, with starting pay of $9 per hour. Everyone working on the contract packaging team, from team leaders to ISO managers to Devine Giese herself, has gone through the Apricity program.

“We’ve all been there, so we really have a unique credibility with the population,” Devine Giese says.

In 2007, Apricity became ISO certified. Some companies feel uncertain about working with Apricity when they realize the population it works with. Because ISO requires an external audit, Devine Giese says the certification helps companies trust that Apricity does quality work.

Apricity’s services include its new Recovery Works program, which provides educational outreach for employers to help make their workplaces more friendly to those in recovery. It also provides guidance in dealing with those in the workplace who may be battling addiction and help for employees who are supporting family members going through addiction. Wisconsin’s pervasive drinking-focused culture can cause many problems, Devine Giese says.

The Apricity team continues to do outreach to spread awareness about its capabilities. Devine Giese says she wishes more people understood that addiction is a disease like any other. “People who are in recovery are awesome employees. The turnaround and the loyalty that people in recovery have is amazing.”

Setting up for success

Those facing barriers need support as they prepare to enter the workforce. Nonprofit employment and training organization Forward Service Corp. provides services in 46 counties throughout the state, including the 18 in the New North. It works with community partners and employers to coordinate resources and support the unemployed and underemployed in their quest to find a job or career.

FSC serves youth through adults and people representing diverse backgrounds and circumstances. Its programs include Road to Livelihood for refugees, Wisconsin Works or W-2, which supports families with children in the home, and TrANS, which trains minorities and females for jobs in the construction industry.

The people Forward Service works with may face a variety of barriers to employment including child care, transportation and a lack of knowledge about the jobs landscape and what kinds of education and training they may need for a role.

“Transportation is such a barrier. There are so many people who might be able to work second or third shift, but if they don’t have the transportation, that job is not an option,” says Allison Knautz, FoodShare Employment and Training/W-2 team lead for FSC.

To address that, FSC is partnering with the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corp. on the Winnebago Catch-A-Ride program, which provides 24/7, on-demand transportation services for workers throughout greater Oshkosh. As for work readiness, FSC also can provide needed equipment such as steel-toe boots and special work clothes. 

The benefits cliff, which happens when public benefits decrease or disappear after household earnings increase, also can hinder people, Knautz says. To help guide clients through that, FSC provides financial education and connects them to community resources.

Brian Covey, director of operations – outreach and development for FSC, says the organization aims to provide ongoing support to clients, which can extend for three to 12 months after someone begins a job. It’s also focused on helping people find the right roles.

“We really try to make a good match because it’s better for the employer and it’s better for our people too,” he says.

While FSC sees demand for workers in every industry, Covey says it’s particularly high for manufacturing and logistics jobs. The organization offers Manufacturing Professionals and Logistics Professionals classes to introduce the industries to people, help them develop skills and career plans, and dispel industry stereotypes.

FSC works closely with area employers to help meet their needs. For example, Schneider worked with the organization to help smooth the transition for one of FSC’s clients, a refugee who had recently earned his Commercial Driver’s License. FSC helped secure translation services for the driver.

“I think we have employers who are really seeking opportunities to connect with employees in different ways, in different avenues,” Knautz says.