Encouraging more people to consider hiring inmates as they return to society was front and center at the Anamosa State Penitentiary as a roundtable was held.

A roundtable of business owners and returning citizens discussed how the decision for businesses to begin hiring former incarcerated individuals had impacted them. Tony Bedard, CEO at Frontier Co-op, and Michael Willoughby, an employee of Bedard’s and a former incarcerated individual at the Anamosa State Penitentiary were among those who shared their experiences.

Bedard was convinced about three years ago after a trip to a prison in Omaha to give it a shot in his company and decided to hire Willoughby. He’s now hired 15 to 30 employees that were previously imprisoned.

“It’s been one of our best recruiting opportunities,” Bedard said. “It’s about filling a need and people who can do that.”

Willoughby said without the apprenticeship programs in place at the penitentiary, that partnership would not have been possible.

“I gained all of my skills here,” Willoughby said.

Amy Kepler, talent acquisition manager at Metal Design Systems, said her company made the decision to change how they looked at hiring from a skills-based approach to a talent-based approach.

“We wanted to engage with discussions with individuals, and we found some fantastic employees with a change in culture and a change in attitude,” Kepler said.

In addition to the roundtable, representatives from Iowa Workforce Development and Iowa Prison Industries were on hand to discuss how employers could begin the practice and discuss the potential benefits. Speakers discussed the skills that can be gained through apprenticeships and some of the protections in place for employers.

Then, employers were treated to a tour to see the work that was being done by incarcerated individuals. Employers got a chance to see the sign shop, housekeeping and welding shop.

Brian Weber, senior vice president of global manufacturing at Polo Custom Products in Monticello, was one of the employers in attendance. The company has not hired someone being released from prison before but were exploring the possibility.

“We’d actually had some internal discussions about hiring non-violent offenders. That was about two months ago, and then I got an email about this,” he said. “It was just kind of a coincidence that the two came together.”

The company had previously outsourced some work to Iowa Prison Industries in the past, but Weber had never had the opportunity to see the work that they do. While he said it could be hard to find people that want to work in manufacturing, he found plenty of interest in talking to people as he went around on the tour.

“I was so impressed with what I saw here,” he said. “It just seems to be a great fit.”

Given their recent training and enthusiasm for the work, Weber compared it to why the company likes going after candidates fresh out of high school.

After the experience, not only is the company going to get in contact with Iowa Workforce Development to start hiring for their Monticello plant, but they will see if there’s something similar that could work in their Mississippi plant as well.

The roundtable was the third in a series put on by the governor’s office about making sure opportunities were afforded to incarcerated individuals upon release.

“I hope if you’ve seen nothing else from your time here today, you’ve seen the collaboration that is taking place at the state level to really make a difference in the lives of Iowans and to help employers get the workforce that they need to grow and expand,” Reynolds told those in attendance.

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