Prison-to-employment pipeline brings new manufacturing talent to NEO companies

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Eddie Taylor has held numerous jobs over his life, from spraying down car rims to fitting together metal parts on an assembly line to operating a tow motor.

What Taylor has never enjoyed is a sustainable career, a situation exacerbated by a lengthy prison stint that, for all intents and purposes, made him radioactive to the job market when he was released last year.

<span class="content-image-text">After recently completed the skills course Eddie Taylor is beginning work as a material handler for packaging manufacturer Elsons International.</span>After recently completed the skills course Eddie Taylor is beginning work as a material handler for packaging manufacturer Elsons International.Thanks to a new training program headed by the Manufacturing Advocacy & Growth Network (MAGNET), Taylor now has an opportunity to grow within an industry suffering a shortage of able workers.

After recently completing the skills course,theCleveland resident is beginning work as a material handler for packaging manufacturer Elsons International, a company with a long history of giving second chances to ex-offenders.

Taylor, who graduated from the program in July, is thrilled to start work, particularly in a jobs market shaken by the coronavirus pandemic and nationwide manufacturing shutdowns.

“The best thing I can do is be at work every day, follow directions and learn everything they have to offer,” says Taylor, 52. “Elsons is giving me the big break I’ve always been looking for.”

Taylor is among nine local men to complete the pilot initiative launched by a coalition of 20-plus Cuyahoga County manufacturing employers.

Initiated by MAGNET and the Greater Cleveland Partnership in 2019, the Workforce Connect Manufacturing Sector Partnership aims to close the county’s manufacturing talent gap via innovative programming and an eye toward systemic change.

The coalition designed the pilot with backing from 10 area manufacturing businesses, including Elsons, Talan Products and Alloy Engineering. Workforce development nonprofit Towards Employment and the Precision Metalforming Association (PMA) collaborated with manufacturers on curriculum development and delivery.

Partnership leaders say they are flipping the “school-to-prison pipeline,” where zero-tolerance policies funnel disadvantaged youth out of public schools directly into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Adam Snyder, managing director of the sector partnership for MAGNET, points to the often-overlooked talent coming from the prison system as a key program driver.

<span class="content-image-text">Adam Snyder, managing director of the sector partnership for MAGNET</span>Adam Snyder, managing director of the sector partnership for MAGNET“Everything we’re doing in the partnership is started by what employers say they need,” says Snyder. “In this instance, the program was seen as a way to access the reentry population and prepare them for roles in manufacturing companies.”

An on-ramp to a new career

In January, a MAGNET survey found about 8,000 open manufacturing jobs in Northeast Ohio, a figure that observers expect to double—and possibly triple—as the industry rebounds from the pandemic.

Considering nearly 3,000 people are released from prison every year in Cuyahoga County, project supporters say the confluence represents an ideal on-ramp into a new career.

More than 80 candidates applied to the first class, surpassing organizer expectations for the four-week effort that began in May.The coalition then pivoted in response to the virus crisis, giving participants Chromebooks to foster virtual learning.

For in-person learners—who comprised about 20% of the program—MAGNET ran a specially designed classroom with plexiglass dividers, temperature checks and strict sanitation practices.

The curriculum skilled students on technical competencies such as print reading, quality systems management and welding and machining principles. Job seekers also learned conflict resolution and interviewing techniques, representing a suite of workforce readiness proficiencies crucial in not only finding work, but also to staying on the payroll.

Graduates moved into entry-level positions paying between $12 and $16 an hour, though upward mobility within a business is the long-term goal, notes Snyder.

“We know we have a retirement cliff coming,” he says. “We’re bringing people into roles that tenured folks will be retiring from.”

Taylor, the newest member of Elsons’ staff, says the program prepared him for whatever challenges his new job presents.

While incarcerated in federal prison for 13 years following a series of unarmed bank robberies,Taylor worked in food service, gleaning the ins and outs of sanitation and meal preparation.

After his 2019 release, Taylor found brief work at McDonald’s, while other would-be employers balked at hiring someone with a decade behind bars. He learned of the MAGNET program through coalition member OhioMeansJobs, emerging from graduation with a transformational tool set.

“This workshop paved the way for my future,” says Taylor. “Things were looking bleak before I signed up, but I’ve utilized all the skills they taught me.”

<span class="content-image-text">Elsons president and chief executive officer Andrew Jackson</span>Elsons president and chief executive officer Andrew JacksonAn untapped population

Almost since its inception in 1984, Elsons has been a stable home for ex-offenders seeking steady work. About half of the inner-city manufacturer’s 25 employees have been incarcerated, says president and chief executive officer Andrew Jackson.

Elsons serves automotive suppliers, manufacturing-based companies, and the consumer goods market with a line of corrugated pallets, pads, and internal liners. Jackson, a Cleveland native and minority business owner, says joining the coalition is about giving an underserved population a leg up as much as it is creating a manufacturing employee base.

“If you’ve made a mistake and paid your debt to society, you deserve a chance to have a decent wage and feed your family,” says Jackson. “We need as many talented people as possible on shop floors and in our offices.”

Material handler jobs and similar starter positions pay $12 to $13 hourly, bolstered by full benefits packages that include health insurance and performance bonuses. Entry-level workers have opportunities to advance—among Elsons’ success stories is a former felon who rose from laborer to team lead.

Jackson commends the partnership’s efforts in building a pipeline of day-one ready workers arriving with a further willingness to learn.

“It’s an integrated model with all of us working together, which allows things to be more efficient,” he says. “These folks have had proper training before they get here. By the time they get to me, I just have to get them entrenched into the environment.”

Future iterations of the program will offer intensive learning to additional members of an untapped community, remarks Ethan Karp, president and CEO of MAGNET.

“Our goal is to expand the program and make some real dents,” he says. “A program like this can offer just a little bit of healing while helping our economy move forward.”

Of the nine original students in the pilot program, six have been placed in manufacturing jobs; one is in final interviews and expecting an offer any day; one participant moved out of the region, and one continues to work with Toward Employment on polishing his skills as he moves toward ready-to-work status.

The next partnership program is scheduled to start in September.

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

DDouglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine, and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.