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Advice for firms to hire former inmates: Let a partner help

Bruce Murray hires for a 10-person window rehab business. Bonnie Eckstein is talent acquisition manager for Ikea, which runs 47 U.S. stores. Both want to know more about how to hire people coming from prison.

Bob Logue, president of Quaker City Coffee, talks about the benefits and challenges of hiring ex-offenders at an event Thursday sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and in partnership with the Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative.
Bob Logue, president of Quaker City Coffee, talks about the benefits and challenges of hiring ex-offenders at an event Thursday sponsored by the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and in partnership with the Reentry Project, a collaborative news initiative.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

Bruce Murray is the talent acquisition manager (and chief executive and chief carpenter) for a 10-employee window rehabilitation company in Philadelphia.

Bonnie Eckstein is the talent acquisition manager at Ikea Group, a global retailer that hires thousands worldwide, enough to staff 47 U.S. stores, including two here. She works at the Swedish retailer's U.S. headquarters in Plymouth Meeting, one of about 700 employees on the corporate side.

Not much in common, except they are both exploring hiring people who come out of prison.

And both spent Thursday morning listening to a panel of employers who had already done so. The session was sponsored by the Inquirer, Daily News, and partnering with the Reentry Project, a collaborative of about 15 regional media outlets covering the issue. About 130 people attended the event at the Chamber of Commerce of Greater Philadelphia's offices in Center City.

"We're actually really inspired by what you guys are doing," Eckstein said during the question-and-answer section. What she wanted were specific tips that could help her company and be scaled nationally.

Murray's issue was the opposite. He wanted to hire, but thought that his small business couldn't get the advice he needed. One mistake would be a disaster; he had already paid a client $5,000 to repair work that had been damaged.

The panel's consensus?

Get a partner, a government or social service agency with the street smarts to assess ex-inmates, make the right job match, and run interference if problems arise.

"It's like an HR department," said panelist Bob Logue, who founded Quaker City Coffee with the intent to employ the formerly incarcerated. He turned to RISE, the city government's reentry program, and CEO, a nonprofit that works with ex-prisoners, to find candidates whom he could vet himself with partner Christian Dennis, a former inmate.

And he turns to those groups when needed: "If they are having a bad moment, we send them there."

Panelist Beth Tiewater, director of projects at Baker Industries, said her nonprofit can help. Baker employs people coming out of prison in its contract manufacturing facility, layering in counseling and services that can aid someone subjected to trauma and helping them gain employment elsewhere, giving support to the employer and employee for several months.

"We're asking people to reenter a society they were never part of," she said.

Jeff Brown, who operates 13 ShopRite and Fresh Grocer stores here, said his firm, Brown's Super Stores  Inc., employs 3,000 people, including at least 500 with criminal backgrounds. "They have fewer problems than the general population," he said.

Brown has committed to hiring all graduates of a program at a related but separate nonprofit, Uplift Solutions. People from prison take six weeks of paid training that includes job readiness, conflict and anger management, customer service, and how to operate cash registers. Uplift's three employees include a social worker.

Both Brown and Logue said their employees who were former drug dealers made natural merchandisers.

"Selling drugs is a business … inventory, margins, sales," Brown said. "The young people who have been incarcerated are business savvy. Being ambitious and being business savvy, they are advancing into management at a higher rate."

Logue also talked about the marketing value of a socially conscious business, saying millennials especially prefer to work for companies that benefit society.

Donna L. Allie, chief executive of Team Clean, said she got started hiring ex-offenders almost by accident. Her company had been hired to clean the now-demolished Veterans Stadium ahead of an event. But it snowed, and there was no way any company could have shoveled enough to get it done on time. The solution was to bus inmates from a local prison. It continued from there.

"They were grateful to have a job," she said. And mostly, "they were hard workers and did not desire to return to prison."

Allie's partners include RISE, Project HOME, and CareerLink, the city's employment office run by Philadelphia Works.

In the audience, a Philadelphia Works staffer told Eckstein, who wanted a national partner, that CareerLink is merely the Pennsylvania name for government-sponsored services and directed her to the national group, American Job Center. CareerLink business services representative Troy Singleton said more companies are considering people coming from prison.

Eckstein said before the meeting that Ikea is reconsidering the letter it sends to prospective employees who have been offered a job, but whose background checks come back with a question. "We're trying to make it more welcoming, to have it say, 'We want to hear your story. We want to know what you've done since your situation, and we want to be able to give people a chance.' "