If you’re an employer who’s been gnashing your teeth over the nationwide employee shortage, what if I told you that you’re overlooking a group of potential employees with a great work ethic, devotion to their jobs, and low potential for turnover? And what if I told you that these are what’s known as “second chance” employees, specifically people who have previously been in prison or jail?

This, at least, has been the happy experience of Nehemiah Manufacturing in Cincinnati (after a halting start; more about that below). Nehemiah Manufacturing, helmed by long-time packaged-goods executive Dan Meyer, successfully employs some 130 of these second chance workers to manufacture and package small-scale but profitable brands licensed from Procter & Gamble (Dreft, as well as sub-brands of Tide, Febreze, Downy, and others) and consistently experiences a turnover rate of 15%, less than half of its industry’s 40% norm, as well as scoring well in many other HR-related indicators.

Looking to make a difference “beyond writing a check”

But let me back up. The story I want to tell you begins on Dan Meyer’s 53rd birthday, which saw him suddenly blessed with “enough time to make a difference” after the successful sale of his previous company. Meyer set out to make a difference “in a way that went beyond writing checks to local charities.” Meyer, a Cincinnati-based veteran in the marketing and manufacture of packaged goods, wanted to share, as he puts it, “time, talent, and treasure” and to be “making a difference every day, one person at a time,” Meyer tells me. “I wasn’t sure, though, exactly how I was going to make that happen.”

The sense of urgency for Meyer increased every time he drove through the distressed neighborhoods in Cincinnati that other well-to-do locals would pointedly avoid. “What I saw was devastation, right here in our beautiful city. And I wanted to help rather than avert my gaze. I knew this help would involve finding opportunities for the people who struggle to live in these neighborhoods, but beyond that, my vision was far from fully formed.”

The question that changed everything: “Would you ever employ an ex-inmate?”

This changed the day Meyer got a pointed question from the director of a social service agency that provided pre-vocational readiness training for those about to leave the penal system. The director’s simple and poignant question for Meyer: “Would you ever employ an ex-inmate? Because if nobody will employ these folks, I’m not sure why we’re even doing this readiness training in the prisons in the first place.”

At the time, says Meyer, “there was not a company in America that would hire somebody with a felony conviction. And they asked us, because they knew we were starting a ‘profit with a purpose’ company, to be the exception. Not knowing exactly what being such an employer entailed, but being pretty sure it was a step that would ring true to our mission of helping those that need it most, we said, ‘sure, we’ll give it a shot.'”

An immediate success—leading to an immediate setback

Employing these newly released former prisoners was an immediate success, or so it seemed for the first few weeks. They were hardworking, appreciative of the jobs, creative… “everything you’d want in an employee,” says Meyer. That was, until the morning, which would arrive without fail, when one after another of these promising second chance employees would simply not show up for work and would be nowhere to be found.

“We had been naïve,” says Meyer. We’d believed what we’d kept hearing:  that what people need to raise themselves up was a job. True of course, but a job by itself simply wasn’t enough” without a supportive context surrounding it. “To succeed, these new employees needed affordable housing. They needed transportation. They often needed help with addiction issues.” Without addressing these gaps as well, the offer of a job held only a hollow promise.

Adding a supportive structure—and a social worker–to the mix

The solution to the puzzle fell in place with the suggestion, from another social service partner, that the next employee Nehemiah should hire should be a social worker to focus on mitigating the challenges that Nehemiah’s new employees were facing outside of work. This proved a solid and sustainable success, and from that point forward, this has been the trajectory of Nehemiah: employ the second chance employees, then solve the next challenge in these employees’ lives required to keep them employed.

Business results so good “I’d put [them] up against anyone’s, anywhere, with pride”

The result to date? Meyer’s company is currently employing 190 employees, of whom 130 are second chance. Nehemiah’s business is growing ten percent year over year and boasting “a P&L that I’d put up against anyone’s, anywhere, with pride.” Most impressively Nehemiah’s employee turnover is only 15%, far below the 40% norm in light-manufacturing jobs.” (All numbers are self-reported.)

What were the “next next” challenges Meyer and his team at Nehemiah have since gone to work on? “Once our approach to employment and ancillary services like housing was established, the next step was to more permanently work on some of the longer-term challenges we felt able and inspired to assist with. Such as working on getting records expunged. Figuring out what can be done about employees’ credit problems. Getting them set up for continuing education. We now have not only social work assistance for our employees, we also have legal counsel and more.”

Substance abuse issues are a big concern with this cohort, “but that would also be true if I ran a hospital,” Meyer reasonably points out, with a verifiable twinkle in his eye. Nehemiah does conduct drug testing, but when faced with the disappointment of a positive result, “we don’t give up on the employee. As long as the employee is willing to own up to the problem and agree to work through it, we will pay for them to get help, and afterward, they’ll have their job back. We stick with them. Period.”

Spreading Nehemiah’s methodology to other potential employers in the business community

As news of Nehemiah’s success has spread, the desire to emulate its approach has grown as well. And, inevitably and unrelentingly, the availability of people leaving the penal system in need of a job and related support has continued to outstrip Nehemiah’s ability to find employment for all of them by itself.

To address both of these issues, Meyer and then-partner Richard Palmer founded Beacon of Hope Business Alliance in 2015 with the support of business, religious and social service leaders with a goal of spreading Nehemiah’s successful methodology widely enough to facilitate additional employment outside of Nehemiah. “I love what we’re able to accomplish ourselves at Nehemiah, but I want to see that replicated everywhere, and I felt that hunger from other businesses to see what they could do along those lines as well,” says Meyer. “Beacon of Hope allows me to be involved in planting the seeds for such efforts far away from our own operation.”

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