The Wall Street Journal’s recent profile of Cincinnati-based Nehemiah Manufacturing Co. opens this way:
While some companies try to attract and keep employees with yoga classes and lavish cafeterias, Nehemiah Manufacturing’s perks include a social-service team and an attorney.
When two consumer-products veterans started Nehemiah a decade ago, their idea was to create more opportunities in a struggling part of Cincinnati. Increasingly, that meant hiring people who had a particularly hard time finding jobs: those with criminal backgrounds.
Now, workers with criminal records make up around 80% of the company’s about 180 employees….
Dan Meyer, Nehemiah’s CEO and a veteran of Procter & Gamble, and his partner Richard Palmer started hiring workers with a criminal background in 2011. At first, things didn’t go well, so they hired a social worker to help with needs like housing and staying off drugs. Since then, the company has developed ways to identify candidates who are likely to be reliable, and has put a formal support system in place.
Today, the company’s annual turnover is about 15%, “well below the 38.5% average for consumer-products companies,” according to the Journal.
Even among companies embracing so-called second-chance hiring, Nehemiah is unusual, with a workforce where a criminal past is the norm rather than the exception.
“We found that the population we were hiring who had criminal backgrounds were our most loyal people,” said Mr. Palmer.
“When we were looking for people to work overtime, come in on Saturday or go that extra mile, it was the second-chance population that was saying, ‘I’m in.’”
Karrie Norgren, a 26-year-old former heroin addict, told the Journal she wasn’t reliable when she first joined Nehemiah in 2018.
But “something clicked” after she missed three days of work and [a social worker] sat her down for a chat. She now runs a small team of employees as a line captain.
Gina Johnson, 45 years old, has a seventh-grade education and was in and out of prison for drug-related crimes. Nehemiah helped her find housing, clean up her credit record and set a budget. She now runs a team that fulfills Amazon orders for items from Nehemiah and other companies.
“I never knew what a goal was until I got here,” Ms. Johnson said. She spent seven months as a Nehemiah worker before being taken on full time. “It was the best feeling in the world,” she said.
According to the Journal,
Only half of applicants make it through [Nehemiah’s] initial screening…. Those that do are taken on as temporary workers and assigned a job coach who helps them understand employer expectations.
They typically spend a week or more in a job-readiness program. After a probation period of three to six months or so, about 60% of the temp workers are elevated to full-time employees.
Nehemiah allots about $120,000 annually for its social service team. It also donates about $150,000 a year to nonprofits such as City Gospel Mission, which forwards job candidates and provides drug-treatment classes and rehab programs to the company’s employees.
It spends about $15,000 annually on legal services, including expunging criminal records, and about $50,000 on continuing education. It also owns four apartments, which it rents to employees at half of market rates.
Permanent employees at Nehemiah start at $12.50 an hour, with midlevel employees earning around $15. That is roughly in line with the national average for similar work, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Nehemiah workers also receive a year-end bonus of around 7%. All full-time employees are also eligible for health insurance, tuition reimbursement, a retirement savings plan and other benefits….
Nehemiah conducts random drug tests of employees; it may pay the cost of treatment for those who fail the tests as well as workers’ salaries while they’re out.
Now Nehemiah is working to help other Cincinnati employers bring on employees with criminal backgrounds. It created the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance and staged a golf outing to raise funds for three vans that members can use to get workers without cars to distant jobs.
Kroger Co. Chief Executive Rodney McMullen toured Nehemiah’s operations in 2016 and, a year later, asked the consumer-products company to help with recruiting. The grocery giant hired 40 people with criminal records in two Cincinnati manufacturing plants; Kroger is expanding the program to manufacturing and distribution facilities in Indiana, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Oregon….
Of the initial hires, 37 still work for Kroger; about half have been promoted from entry-level jobs to lead manufacturing roles paying $20 or more an hour.
“We have many examples of people buying their first car, buying a house,” Mr. McMullen said.