On May 9, business leaders and representatives from two major business associations testified before House of Representatives Law and Justice Committee, at the invitation of the chair, Rep. Kesto (R – District 39). Cascade Engineering, Abcor Industries, Mercy/Trinity Health, Business Leaders for Michigan and Talent 2025 discussed the need to increase the available workforce and to remove barriers to employment.

Kevin Stotts, president of Talent 2025 representing over 100 CEOs, is working to make West Michigan a top 20 employment region by 2025 by ensuring there is an ongoing supply of world-class talent.

Stotts noted that Michigan has a tight labor market with an unemployment rate of just 3.4 percent.  Employers are starved for good employees and formerly incarcerated individuals offer an opportunity to meet the talent needs in the region and across the state.

Over 200 employers in the region currently hire returning citizens and, said Stotts, a criminal record does not hinder a person’s ability to be successful on the job. In fact:

CEOs whose companies hire returning citizens note these employees are dedicated, conscientious, and successful, often outperforming their peers without a criminal background.

Stotts strongly recommended that the state fund more job training and placement services prior to release, saying:

Promoting smart reintegration back into society and into the workforce while advancing public safety is good for everyone: employers, individuals with a criminal background, and our communities.

Businesses discussed their internal policies aimed at increasing employment opportunities for parolees. Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president of Cascade Engineering, a manufacturing company in Grand Rapids, explained his company does not inquire about criminal records until an individual is engaged in the employment process.

This business practice stems from a belief in second chances and redemption. He said:

We know that employment opportunities reduce recidivism and help keep families together. And when we are successful as a community employing returning citizens, it allows us to spend our state and federal funds on programs other than corrections. This is a win, win, win: a win for business, our community, and for our employees.

Mark Miller, president of Cascade Engineering, told the Committee that hiring returning citizens is good for our business and we have been successful as a result.

He urged the Committee members to invest in vocational and “soft skill” training for the returning citizen population. Soft skills, such as communications, problem solving and time management skills, help people succeed in the workplace.

JT Weis, CEO of Abcor Industries, a producer of sustainable wood products in Holland, testified that 50 percent of his staff were formerly incarcerated. Many of his employees are sex offenders who are often perceived as the “worst of the worst.” Weis said:

The truth is the folks who come out of the MDOC after 10, 12, and 14 years are the ones that are the most loyal, productive, and ready to grow.

Weis relies on a community-based organization, 70×7 Life Recovery, to support his employees with reentry services such as transportation, mentoring, and housing. He strongly recommended investing in these critical community-based services for parolees and expanding of MDOC’s Vocational Village program. The Vocational Village is a skilled trades training program offering career and technical education. Michigan currently has one Vocational Village at the Richard A. Handlon Correction Facility in Ionia.

John Schwartz, regional vice president at Mercy and Trinity Health, said the health care field is subject to strict regulations. Under current law, individuals convicted of certain crimes can be prohibited from employment for up to 15 years – long after they complete probation. Schwartz noted that this reduces the available workforce for the health care industry.

Schwartz urged the Committee to consider amendments to statutes that present barriers to work, stating:

We all have to recognize that to err is human. People make mistakes and it does not necessarily make them bad people . . . Patients are not at risk because somebody makes a mistake outside of the workplace. . .

What we are asking is that you allow us as an employer to make some of those determinations on our own. We suggest that we are capable of doing that. We have systems and wraparound services and we do thorough testing before and during employment so that we are ensuring we are providing our patients a safe environment.

Tim Sowton, vice president of government affairs and public policy for Business Leaders of Michigan, a statewide roundtable of 80 business leaders, testified about the importance of investing in services that would increase the labor pool in Michigan, saying:

Talent is one of the most important factors when business leaders are deciding to expand or locate their business. Our interest in smart criminal justice reform is related to how the state is budgeting and its priorities.

We are spending about two billion dollars out of the general fund on corrections. That is $700 million more than on our public universities . . . This is money we think would be better spent on areas such as higher education and a skilled trades fund.

Rep. Kesto commended the business leaders for their investment in Michigan and requested additional recommendations for the Committee to consider in future lawmaking.