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Investing in Returning Citizens, Moving Michigan Forward

Timothy J. Seppala

With millennials uninterested in manufacturing jobs and Baby Boomers retiring, how will Michigan fill its talent gap? It starts with employers readjusting their thinking when it comes to hiring. For a handful of companies in the state, moving the question “have you been convicted of a felony?” to the end of the hiring process has offered economic and societal benefits while continuing to foster productive working environments and meeting strategic goals.

EDUCATION EXPANDS TALENT POOL  

Investing in returning citizens was the topic of discussion during a breakfast briefing in July, hosted in partnership between Bank of America, Corrections to College California, the Detroit Regional Chamber, and the Vera Institute of Justice. A panel of national and local leaders discussed how access to postsecondary education for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students in the Detroit region can positively impact communities and businesses. 

Brian Jones, a formerly incarcerated Eastern Michigan University student, fully embraces a second chance and bolsters the community he grew up in while running a boutique near 8 Mile and Mound Road.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brian Jones, one of the panelists, is currently an Eastern Michigan University (EMU) student set to graduate magna cum laude this fall. He was incarcerated as a teenager for armed robbery, attempted murder, and felony firearm possession, and was sentenced to 18-and-a-half years at Parnall Correctional Facility in Jackson, Michigan. While incarcerated, Jones earned 28 college credits, writing college papers with golf pencils. He ultimately earned an associate degree from Oakland Community College, graduating summa cum laude. 

Today, along with his studies at EMU, Jones runs 10, 20, 30 — a boutique near 8 Mile and Mound Road, helping bolster the community he grew up in.  

“My transition from prison to college and society was very smooth because of the people who helped me,” Jones said during the panel.  

THE BUSINESS CASE  

A panel of national and local leaders discussed how access to post-secondary education for incarcerated or formerly incarcerated students can positively impact communities and businesses.

Businesses across Michigan are seeing the benefit of investing in their communities. In West Michigan, Cascade Engineering Family of Companies has been hiring returning citizens for the past 40 years. The program started as an offshoot of the company’s Welfare-to-Work program that aimed to give those living in poverty a path toward meaningful employment.  

“We talk about moving the checkbox. It’s not about not asking the question, it’s about asking the question after you’ve looked at [a candidate] as an individual,” says president and CEO Christina L. Keller. Since the program started, her company has hired more than 1,000 returning citizens and has no plans of stopping. 

DTE Energy offers a similar mindset. If an applicant to DTE has the skills needed and has been convicted of a felony in the past, it’s “not a knock-out” toward their employment, says Executive Chairman Gerry Anderson.  

In the past three years, DTE has hired 50 returning citizens into its workforce as tree trimmers, and in June broke ground at Parnall Correctional Facility to train and ready them for the workforce before they’re paroled.  

“This is a tight labor market right now with a lot of companies looking for high-quality new employees,” Anderson says. “This is a source of 8,000.” 

He’s referring to the number of parolees released each year, according to a study by the Michigan Department of Corrections. Of that number, more than half will be unemployed, and without the means to get a job or find a place to live. A third will wind up back in prison. Of the 40% who do find work, only 2% fall victim to recidivism.  

“This is the net evolution of trying to find every possible pocket of qualified labor,” says Matt Elliott, regional president of Bank of America. “Over the last five years we’ve had more conversations with clients around talent and labor issues than we have about capital.” 

More than anything, investing in returning citizens — who can come back and make their own contribution, like Jones — has personal and community benefits.  

“I played a role many, many years ago in tearing down the community,” Jones says. “Placing a business here was one of my ways of contributing to the economic redevelopment of the community I helped tear down.”

Timothy J. Seppala is a metro Detroit-based freelance writer.