Training & Education

Overcoming obstacles

By Gretchen Salois

Nonprofit initiative connects those facing barriers with ample employment opportunities

March 2018 - Five years in a prison cell gives a person a lot of time to think. “I had to mentally prepare myself for life once I got out,” says Steve Shewry, who doubted he had any career prospects after he served his sentence.

Shewry battled his own preconceived notions about how he would survive inside. “When incarcerated, the first thing you think you need to [do is] stand your ground and be the toughest—but I decided right then to change my mindset to better myself for when I got out,” he says.

When he learned about a four-year welding apprenticeship at Anamosa State Penitentiary, Shewry threw himself into it wholeheartedly. He completed the program and since his release has worked as a sheetmetal journeyman in Iowa and Illinois.

It’s opportunities like these that Kyle Horn, a former temp agency manager, works to highlight and honor. Horn found that few companies were eager to recruit candidates with past criminal convictions, intellectual or physical disabilities, or older workers.

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“I wanted to change perceptions and convince employers that people can overcome their barriers to employment,” says Kyle Horn, founder of America's Job Honor Awards.

“I wanted to change perceptions and convince employers that people can overcome their barriers to employment,” Horn says. “Some of these people have been dealt dismal hands in life, which laid the foundation for poor decisions.

“I put myself in their shoes,” he continues. “Many individuals with poor work histories and criminal convictions were raised in unstable environments with multi-generational poverty. They grew up in an environment where no one held a stable job. We’re not born with a work ethic: it must be modeled and taught. And for some people, it never was [taught].”

With a newfound desire to help disadvantaged job seekers find work, he moonlighted to establish America’s Job Honor Awards. It’s a nonprofit initiative celebrating people who overcome barriers to employment and the employers who hire them.

“As a staffing manager, each day I went home haunted by the candidates we couldn’t help.” Horn says, “Rather than condemn these individuals, I decided to become their advocate.”

Job Honor Awards

Horn spread the word about his initiative, soliciting nominations and producing honoree videos. He also partnered with the Iowa Association of Business and Industry and presented the awards on the final day of Iowa ABI’s annual three-day conference where skilled trades and Workshop for Warriors advocate Mike Rowe gave the keynote address. After 30 minutes on stage, the inaugural Job Honor Awards was a success.

“The reaction of the thousand business leaders in the audience was amazing,” Horn recalls. “There were standing ovations for each honoree. There were many tears. It was a great day for disadvantaged job seekers in Iowa.”

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America's Job Honor Awards recognize people who work to dispel prejudice and erase stigma.

To seize on the momentum, Horn sent a video from the event to ManpowerGroup and was invited to its Milwaukee headquarters by COO Darryl Green. “I was thrilled when ManpowerGroup offered to incubate the initiative,” recalls Horn, who immediately resigned from his staffing firm job and began working on the awards full time.

Horn was convinced that success in Iowa would spread to Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. “If we proved the concept in Iowa, we [can] spread this initiative across all 50 states.”

America’s Job Honor Awards was recently granted 501(c)3 nonprofit status, and Horn seeks additional sponsors to finance its national expansion. His work has spotlighted such groups as Pastor Jerome Smith’s The Joseph Project in Milwaukee and Anamosa State Penitentiary’s apprenticeship program in Iowa, in order to highlight those providing training to an unrecognized talent pool.

Combating discrimination

America’s Job Honor Awards promotes opportunities for people facing such barriers as criminal records, intellectual or physical disabilities, ageism, as well as immigrants and refugees struggling to enter the workforce.

“Our goal is not to build roads out of poverty, but rather to illuminate the roads that already exist. We spotlight great organizations like The Joseph Project and others who equip disadvantaged job seekers. We’re helping these organizations expand their capacity by encouraging job seekers to use their services and employers to hire their graduates. Our honoree videos make a powerful business and moral case to hire individuals who overcome unemployment barriers,” Horn says.

“We’re meeting a practical necessity,” he adds. “We simply don’t have enough workers to fill the vacancies created by retiring baby boomers. And as immigration becomes more restrictive, our workers have to come from somewhere.

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Steve Shewry, left, completed the four-year fabrication apprenticeship under the guidance of former corrections officer Tim Diesburg, bottom right. Shewry proved his ability by welding together two soda cans, a gift Diesburg says he treasures to this day.

“Unless spaceships begin delivering qualified workers,” he continues, “we need to find them here on Earth. My argument is that they are already in our backyard. Unfortunately, bias has exiled huge numbers of highly motivated job seekers, and it’s time for employers to take a serious look at this untapped workforce.”

America’s Job Honor Awards underscores the idea that anyone can succeed in the workforce. “Disadvantaged job seekers watch our videos and see people succeeding—people who look like them, from their own neighborhoods. People with employment barriers sometimes give up and conclude that good jobs are only for other people. We’re speaking hope and encouragement into their lives, convincing them they can make a brand-new start.”

Creating a pipeline

Horn encourages employers to partner with workforce development organizations, as they can be valuable sources of highly motivated candidates. “These organizations take training and education seriously, and most of them carefully vet their candidates before recommending them to employers. They know that if they recommend a poor candidate, they’ve poisoned the well and companies back off,” Horn says. “Employers can rely on workforce development organizations for alternative pipelines of candidates. The organizations can be state-run—like prison apprenticeship programs—or they may be community-based and faith-based organizations like The Joseph Project.” (See sidebar, page 24).

Horn’s program encourages employers to take a look at their graduates by showcasing success stories that come out of those organizations. “If we can create more pull from employers, then more struggling job seekers will have reason to hope. They will see that they’ll be accepted into the workforce if they overcome their employment barriers.”

Tools of the trade

Tim Diesburg used the Job Honor Award videos to encourage inmates at Anamosa and surrounding  manufacturing companies to see the value in the apprenticeship program. “People in vocational rehabilitation services [also] often share our videos with employers, persuading them to consider candidates with disabilities,” says Horn.

Shewry’s transformation into a sheetmetal fabricator took persistence. Diesburg helmed the Anamosa program and his message throughout remained clear: If you’re willing to do the work and invest the time and effort, you can change your future.

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Diesburg retired in 2017 after a 35-year career in corrections, “I noticed how well offenders did in the [apprenticeship] program through the various shops and wanted to develop [the program] beyond hours logged and the issued certificate,” he says.

The apprenticeship program didn’t expand overnight. In 2011, Diesburg sat in on a focus group where he jumped at an opportunity to place successful graduates from the prison apprenticeship programs into actual careers.

“I volunteered to create a vocational training program for offenders and we were off running,” Diesburg says. Under his tutelage, the program became recognized by the U.S. Department of Labor in 2014, and in 2015, Diesburg’s program went statewide in Iowa.

“We train inmates in 19 different vocations today,” he says. “Manufacturers are realizing there is an untapped workforce for returning citizens who trained in these programs while incarcerated.”

The Iowa Department of Corrections became an ApprenticeshipUSA Leader in 2016. “Inmates are trained in life skills which include speaking to people, interviewing, resumé writing—we’ve created partnerships within the community to remove the stigma associated with returning citizens by working to demonstrate to the manufacturing and judicial systems what efforts are being made to have this be successful,” Diesburg says.

Pay it forward

While at Anamosa, Shewry immersed himself in the welding apprenticeship, which included fabrication courses as well as soft skills and workforce development courses to help navigate interviews and prepare resumés.

When he completed his welding apprenticeship, Shewry wanted to show Diesburg he was serious. “I told him if he could weld two pop cans together I’d be impressed,” Diesburg recalls. “One day he handed me the most perfectly welded cans—it’s a treasure I keep to this day.”

Shewry was given a Job Honor Award in 2017. “I knew that if I wanted to do what’s right, it wasn’t going to be easy,” Shewry says. “But I wanted to better myself so when I got out, I could do the right thing.”

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“I was released Jan. 30 [2017] and the day after, I started my first day on the job,” Shewry recalls. “I was worried how the other workers were going to look at me and treat me but as soon as I started, everyone acted as though I had been there 10 years. That really helped calm me and adapt to the new routine.”

Today, Shewry travels as part of a crew of sheetmetal workers. “We go wherever there is work and [we are] able to adapt to the job and be professional because we represent our company,” he says.

Shewry has since visited the Anamosa Penitentiary in order to encourage inmates who are uncertain about what their futures hold. He also visits high school classrooms to talk with students who find it difficult to adapt to standard curricula.

Shewry says he feels an obligation to mentor both prisoners and young people. “I share my story—to show them a real-life example of someone living a successful life in fabrication.”

He values the professional rewards, too. “As a metalworker, I’m able to take a step back at the end of each shift and look at something we did together as a team—I get self-gratification and self-worth from it and that’s the most important takeaway.”

Employers willing to take this chance will obtain top-notch performers, says Horn. “People who overcome patterns of failure or challenges such as a disability are not only highly qualified employees, but frequently they demonstrate a remarkable work ethic and loyalty.” FFJ




Sen. Ron Johnson (Wisconsin) urges fellow senators to establish career building programs

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Politics aside, Sen. Ron Johnson (seated) lends his resources and experience to help Pastor Jerome Smith's The Joseph Project train tomorrow's manufacturing workforce from an unlikely job pool.

In the city of Milwaukee live thousands of people with troubled pasts and generational poverty, who might feel their options are extremely limited. Pastor Jerome Smith, founder of The Joseph Project at Greater Praise Church of God in Christ, wanted to connect unemployed members of his community with job openings.

Smith met regularly with friend Orlando Owens, who at the time worked for the Republican Party of Wisconsin. “We knew jobs were the answer to issues in the community but we didn’t know how we were going to fix it,” recalls Smith.

Later, Owens began working for Sen. Ron Johnson. After meeting with Sheboygan County Economic Development Corporation, Owens and Smith learned about the area’s sizable labor shortage.

After that meeting, Owens asked Smith to arrange a meeting with the Sheboygan EDC and local clergy, followed by a tour of Sheboygan County employers. Owens and Scott Bolstad, another staffer for Sen. Johnson, helped Pastor Smith create The Joseph Project, which matches Sheboygan employers with graduates of the program.

In August 2015, The Joseph Project welcomed its first class. Owens and Bolstad soon shared a video of that first class in action with the senator.

“After Sen. Johnson watched that video, he’s been gung-ho about The Joseph Project,” Smith says. Johnson told Smith: “This is the right thing to do and as long as you stay with this program, I’m going to work with you.”

The Joseph Project doesn’t teach trades. “We help students understand that as they learn new skills, they’ll make mistakes. So when employers offer constructive criticism, it’s to ensure the employee learns so that the same mistake is not repeated,” Johnson explains.

“We work to make sure students understand that their employer is not out  to get them [but that] learning and having a good attitude can be a revelation that, over time, turns into not only financial stability but spiritually, allows individuals a means to contribute to society and provide for their families.”

The legislator is ardent about connecting employers with candidates from a job pool not previously considered. Connecting with The Joseph Project in Milwaukee felt serendipitous, he recalls. “Through my travels around Wisconsin, I had yet to meet a manufacturer that can hire enough people for the work needed. All that unfulfilled opportunity—we were unsure how to make the connection between untapped people and unfilled jobs.”

Through his work with Pastor Smith, Johnson learned the communities in need simply didn’t know work opportunities were available. “[That] was revealing: These individuals are trapped in the inner city and have no idea what’s out there. The Joseph Project shows them that with good attendance and work ethic, people genuinely can change their lives.”

Class in session

Johnson’s staff finalized a curriculum that includes four days of classroom training, followed by manufacturing companies interviewing students on the fifth and final day of the program.

“From that first class, which started working in October 2015, we’ve been on the ground running ever since,” Smith says.

“Raising funds from donors without any state or federal funding is getting easier to do as time goes on and we continue to train successful job candidates,” he adds, crediting Johnson with a grand vision for helping constituents that goes beyond politics.

Local businesses also donate resources to The Joseph Project. “I’ve been pleased with the generosity of communities [with gifts] that range from donated vans and volunteer drivers,” says Johnson. These are crucial to the program’s success because many jobs are located in the suburbs, not easily accessible by public transportation.

Johnson’s involvement has brought attention to the cause of connecting underserved populations with employment opportunities. As a result, what began in Sheboygan County has spread to other counties within Wisconsin and, through his work as a U.S. senator, nationally. “I’ve had three to four senators come to see what we’re doing and [how] they can adapt the program,” Johnson says, adding that he hopes similar projects in other states take root.

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The senator works with Pastor  Smith to provide intensive four-day training followed by a day of interviews with area manufacturing companies.

On the job

Metal fabricator Mayville Engineering Co. Inc. (MEC) was recently recognized by America’s Job Honor Awards because of its continued efforts to hire returning citizens.

“The idea was to take sometimes generationally unemployed folks and offer them the soft skill training and transportation to and from their homes to where the pay is good and work is consistent,” says Cliff Sanderson, vice president of human resources at MEC in Mayville, Wisconsin.

“Pastor Smith approached me and said he wanted to put something together in the prison system. I let him know we’d be interested if we could narrow in on individuals interested in investing in a new future,” he says.

A few years ago, MEC tried hiring returning citizens but connections to their former lives prevented long-term success. “This time around was different—we had an intermediary with Pastor Smith and the individuals entering our training programs were equipped with the social skills and desire to change their situations,” Sanderson says.

Every couple of months, MEC welcomes a new group of four to eight people looking for full-time employment. At the beginning of 2018, four more were added to the training track.

“The only thing different about these hires is where they lay their heads at night—and once they’re out of prison, they can continue to make a living here,” according to Sanderson. “Once we hire, they’re on the payroll with benefits and a steady paycheck just like any other employee. “

He notes that each person employed through this process “is thankful, respectful in the workplace, and diligent in his or her work—I’d hire 20 more [returning citizens] right now if I could.”

MEC scheduled another class for March. “Once entrenched in the workforce, these employees are able to look into moving into the community to make the commute easier,” Sanderson says.

“We’re very public with the process and I think that’s part of the reason why it’s successful so far—those involved feel an obligation to follow through. They feel accountable and motivated.”

Working with trainees who have learned the soft skills makes a big difference, says Sanderson. “Candidates who have been coached and trained through The Joseph Project often transition better than someone who walks in off the street.”

Wisconsin has a low jobless rate. As a result, “there aren’t a lot of candidates to choose from. We look for people willing to learn and be trained and have good work ethic—those are the attitudes we can work with for the long-term,” Sanderson says.

“I don’t care if you have experience, but if you’re a positive person with a good attitude and willingness to be coached and trained in new skills—if you give me that, I’ll give you the skills to grow into the skilled labor of the future.”

Big picture

Going forward, Smith believes that manufacturers from coast to coast would benefit from changing preconceived notions of what a valued employee looks like. HR professionals should reconsider the pool of applicants and overcome their avoidance of certain backgrounds, Smith suggests.

“Just because these individuals were once incarcerated, it doesn’t mean they don’t want to work or that they can’t add value to your organization—they’re part of the future of a successful manufacturing industry.”

Not everyone in the community supports Pastor Smith’s efforts with The Joseph Project. “We have a hard time convincing some people this project isn’t about politics or black or white nominations—it’s about people, not party lines,” he says.

“At the beginning, I lost friends, had actual death threats—some people just don’t want to hear it no matter how much we try to convince them. I was the sacrificial lamb but I’ll take that role any day of the week if that’s what it takes,” Smith adds.

Shortsighted viewpoints are discouraging but Smith moves forward to prove that helping a few hundred willing workers produces exponential dividends down the line.

“People refuse to see the big picture. We’re not [only] helping 225 people, we’re impacting those lives and everyone involved in each of those individual’s lives.

From those couple of hundred who can now get off food stamps and welfare, and can afford health insurance, [their] children can walk into school with dignity and pride, with decent clothes and a backpack full of school supplies,” he continues. “Families become better off, people earning incomes give back to the economy and their communities and that translates to success.”

As for naysayers who offer no solutions of their own, “The Joseph Project was never a tool to enhance election results,” Smith says. “The election is over and Sen. Johnson continues supporting us and everyone has to accept that we’re here to stay.”

As for Johnson, “Working with The Joseph Project has been the most rewarding experience I’ve been involved with as a United States Senator.”

He urges his fellow legislators who are interested in learning how to adapt similar programs in their communities to reach out to his office. “It’s not a government-funded project, it’s the community coming together,” Johnson says. “I’m proud that my position has helped open doors.”

Contact Sen. Johnson’s office at FFJ


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