Employer and employee perspectives on This Way For Work: Interviews and success stories

Lucy Bennett
Senior Adviser, Community Partnerships, Department of Corrections

Author biography:
Lucy spent four months in the Department of Corrections’ Community Partnerships team, getting success stories into the public arena. She has nearly 20 years’ experience as a journalist in New Zealand and Australia and has worked as a government press secretary, including for two Corrections ministers.  After three years in the Beehive she has recently returned to Parliament to work as a political reporter for the New Zealand Herald.


Introduction

The Department of Corrections’ This Way For Work pilot, which commenced in October 2016, supports people with criminal convictions into employment. At March 2018, the pilot had proven to be highly successful, with 1,086 placements into permanent employment.

The pilot employs specialist recruiters known as offender recruitment consultants (ORCs) who work with employers to place people with criminal convictions (jobseekers) into sustainable employment. The pilot began with eight ORCs, however, the success of the pilot meant that in November 2017 an additional five ORCs were employed, making a total of 15.

The pilot also offers an Employer Starter Pack to remove financial barriers to employment. For example, employers may need to pay for personal safety equipment (such as work boots or a hard hat) for the new employee, or may need to buy new tools for them to use.

The interviews

For this article, five employers who have successfully hired and retained jobseekers through Corrections were interviewed. They were:

  • Tom Nickels, CEO of Waste Management (MOU partner*)
  • Belinda Ritchie, Operations Manager of Ritchies Transport
  • Tom Compton, General Manager of heavy haulage company CV Compton (MOU partner)
  • Ben Po Ching, Managing Director of B&H Builders (MOU partner)
  • Annette de Wet, Resource Manager of ICB Retaining and Construction (MOU partner).

Four people hired by these employers after leaving prison were also interviewed.

The aim of the interviews was to gather perspectives from employers and employees that were slightly more in-depth and anecdotal than the brief evaluation of the This Way For Work pilot (Johnston, 2018).

Employers were asked for their perspectives on This Way For Work, the rationale behind their decisions to hire former offenders, any challenges they or their workers faced during or after the hiring process and the outcomes so far.

The former offenders, all of whom have so far successfully transitioned from prison to the workforce, were asked about their journey from prison to employment and how it had helped change their lives for the better.

Hiring through Corrections

All five employers spoke of two factors that led to their decision to hire staff through Corrections – a skills shortage and a sense of social responsibility.  Another common theme was they were willing to give offenders a second chance because “we realise that people do not even want to talk to someone with a criminal record”.

ICB Retaining and Construction Resource Manager Annette de Wet who has a relationship with Corrections of more than 13 years, was aware that employees could be hired through Corrections. ICB began its own employment relationship with Corrections in early 2017.

Asked why ICB decided to hire through This Way to Work, de Wet said: “We hired through Corrections because of my previous experience. Having the in-work support and overall back-up from Corrections if we ran into any problems influenced the decision. That, as well as social responsibility to give these guys a break, was part of the decision. We really believe there’s a second chance opportunity to find good staff. We realise that people do not even want to talk to someone with a criminal record. They don’t even ask why, they just shy away from it completely. I convinced upper management of ICB to give these guys a chance and it’s worked out really well.”

Waste Management Chief Executive Tom Nickels gave a similar response when asked about his company’s involvement with Corrections:

“It started with our head of HR, Sharon Scott, coming to me and talking to me about the possibilities.  We’ve got a number of skills gaps in our company that we’re continually finding it harder to recruit for, and she said ‘well, this might be an opportunity’. As we got talking, it just felt right. For me, it just seems like the sort of thing big companies should do. As New Zealanders, if we want the sort of society we do, it’s our job to do something about that. If you think about the people who are coming out of prisons, if we as a society do not give them an opportunity, what other option have they realistically got? So it was coming out of two points probably. One was that we have skill gaps that we continually find hard to recruit for and, as a member of society, we’ve got a role to play in creating the society we want.”

Ben Po Ching of B&H Builders described the process as “just another avenue where we can tap into another pool of resource of people who had skills already”.

“I don’t judge them in terms of their character, it’s just the skills that I need. As long as they can swing the hammer or carry out a task that’s given to them, I don’t really care what they’ve done in the past. Some guys, they need to be given another chance. They’re good people. If this can be used as part of their rehabilitation then I’m all for it.”

Tom Compton went further, saying he felt grateful he was in a position to offer former offenders an opportunity he says most people wouldn’t even consider. “We’ve got, as do most companies, a question in our job application which says ‘do you have any convictions’. As soon as a company sees a yes, they’ll bin their application but when I see yes, it’s like an attraction for me and I feel compelled to dig a bit deeper and see where we can get these guys to fit in. I just think it’s such a fantastic thing that we’re doing in giving these boys an opportunity. They’re not all ratbags … the majority of them do want to improve. It is definitely a social morality thing. I’m grateful that I can do it.”

Similarly, Belinda Ritchie says: “A lot of people, I suppose, look at them and go ‘we’re not going to take you on’. But we’re a big, big believer in giving them a second chance.

It’s worked out very well. Obviously we can open the door. If they want to re-offend that’s down to them but the ones that we have taken on haven’t re-offended.”

Work readiness and challenges

All the employers were asked whether they believed the candidates put forward for interviews were work-ready and whether they had appropriate support from Corrections at the time and following employment. Some employers also gave examples of challenges they and the staff they hired faced in making the placement work for both parties.

“We’ve had a few challenges once we’ve appointed people into roles,” says de Wet of
ICB. “Transport and licensing is always an issue. For our labourers to get to work, they need to have at least a restricted licence and reliable transport. Of the nine we’ve employed, three have left for different reasons. The other six are still here. One of the guys is ex-army and he has amazing skills that we saw from the beginning. We’ve advanced him, so he’s a foreman now. He had driver licence issues to begin with, but he got it reinstated after a few months. Before he got it back we had to work around that, like getting someone else to pick him up, but he’s worked out really well.”

Po Ching of B&H Builders said while he felt part of the process, there were always things that could be done better, although he didn’t elaborate. “It’s all got to work out for these people. It’s a second chance at life and it’s an opportunity to learn new skills and develop themselves. That’s rehabilitation right there in a nutshell.”

Compton described former offenders as a highly motivated workforce. “They’re desperate to get into the role. They are definitely motivated. They want to get into a role that they can work hard in and impress an employer, that’s what I’ve found.”

Nickels says that while an individual’s motivation is one factor, there are others. “I think it’s down to the individual who joins us, how well we have assessed them, how well Corrections has assessed them as being ready. It also comes down to the people around them – their workmates, their supervisor, the level of involvement and support and trust. I think they’re all factors, but ultimately a fair degree of it comes down to the individual and whether they actually really do want to be rehabilitated.

“It’s early days for us … and we haven’t had perfect results so far. We’ve had some really good success and we’ve had some that haven’t turned out like we would like. But actually that’s no different to the general population when you’re a big employer like us. Not everybody we put on turns out really well, as much as we’d like it to be the case. We’re not deterred by that.”

He didn’t believe there was anything more to be expected from Corrections in terms of readying former offenders for post-prison employment. “We’ve been really impressed with the level of engagement from Corrections. It’s been almost unexpected. Very positive is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been terrific.”

Ritchie also says a close relationship with Corrections staff helps with any teething problems. “The ones who have come through to us have all definitely been prepped well and are prepared to work. I deal very closely with a Corrections probation officer. When he feels that there’s someone that comes through, he’ll send me the CV and then we will discuss everything and then he will then come in to the interview with the people. Then afterwards he’ll follow up and if there are any problems I can get hold of him straight away. Corrections have been great.”

De Wet agrees the support from Corrections has been good. “For employers, they’ve got this back-up that you have Corrections and they really jump if there’s any problems, they just sort it out, it’s incredible … it’s just a phone call away. It’s really great knowing you’ve got that support.”

Changing lives

The employers were enthusiastic when describing the positive changes they observed in the workers they employed through Corrections and were generally certain their staff would not re-offend while they were employed.

“It’s amazing to see them change, to see them getting their lives back on track, getting the children back, getting a stable home life, having money to spend on things,” says de Wet. “You actually see them physically change. And they are tremendously loyal because of us giving them the opportunity and giving them support, and they know I really care about them.”

Nickels says: “We can do things sometimes that can change the rest of people’s lives and this is an example of that. It provides very positive feedback not only for our company but for those individuals involved. At a personal level it gives you a really warm feeling that you’re doing something beneficial here, you’re helping somebody.”

Ritchie says the company has recently, for the first time, hired female former offenders. Two women have begun work with the company in the past few months. “They are both working out very, very well. Their lives are turning around. They’re really happy, they enjoy coming to work. We’re like a big family here,” she says.

The workers

David* has worked for CV Compton as a mechanic since early 2016. He was deported from the US in late 2015 following his release from prison there. A New Zealander, he had spent 28 years in the US and was ordered to live in Auckland, away from his family in the South Island, when he returned.

“I was offered a programme through the Department of Corrections. They had a one-month course which if you took it you were able to get tickets for certain occupations and at the end of the course they would help look for a job for you. It was all basically health and safety, first aid, traffic control, forklift operations, working at heights and one or two other things.”

He has remained crime-free since being back in New Zealand. “I had no wanting to go back to prison,” he says.

Having a job, he says, gives him purpose. “It means having a stable living environment, a roof over my head, money to do the things I want to do and purchase the stuff I want to purchase. I’m extremely grateful to CV Compton for giving me a chance. Any chance I get I recommend taking the programme that the Department of Corrections has to get a job because a lot of offenders don’t have jobs. It just adds purpose to your life and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something positive.”

Hemi* has been a foreman for about six months and before that a labourer with ICB.

He left Auckland Prison in September 2016 after an eight-year sentence. Hemi, who has a partner and children, says he began serious offending at the age of 14 and cited his upbringing, associations, and the environment in South Auckland as factors in his lifestyle.

“I actually wanted a job. When I was on probation I heard there was an initiative that had started up where Corrections was trying to get guys like myself into work. The main thing for me was that my lifestyle needed to change. Everything that had happened to me in the past needed to change. I wanted that change. The first step was ‘I need a job; I need to keep my mind busy’. I haven’t spent much time with my kids growing up. I love my kids … they’ve always been there for me and the last thing I wanted to do was slide downhill. One of the major concerns I had looking for jobs and applying for jobs was that stigma attached to me. I know myself and I’m a highly intelligent person and I just wanted a chance.”

Hemi says while he may not have appreciated it at the time, with hindsight he can see Corrections gave him rehabilitation and reintegration opportunities while in prison.

“When I look back on it now, on everything that was done to help me to reintegrate – more than anything else, they tried their best with programmes I was engaged in, trying to help me and upskill me. There’s really some quite good programmes.”

With employment, the links to his criminal past have diminished.

“For me, that ceases to exist. Old places, old mates, everything. I really love my job. For the first time it’s something that I love doing. I’ve got people who employed me who’ve placed their trust in me. That trust from them is immense, they trust me to do my job and to do it unsupervised and give me a team.”

Jennifer* recently began working with Ritchies as a cleaner. She is a mother and grandmother, which motivated her further to get into work and resume her former life following her prison term.

“My crime was very silly … I went away for that and I just knew that I was going to turn that sentence into a positive. I got qualifications that I was able to use when I came home … and I got my forklift licence. I did a full rehabilitation programme and I learned about behaviours that I had and had lived with not realising they were really choices and I could have made better choices. And that’s what it’s about now, assessing my situation, reassessing, moving forward and looking at the pros and cons. I’m not just jumping in and doing it just because I think that’s what I should do but because I’ve weighed it all up and I can see where it’s going to go or not going to go. It’s been awesome.”

Having a job has enabled Jennifer to “fit back into that slot of being mum, of being a positive member of society. It took away that shadow, that stigma of ‘you’ve been to prison, no one’s going to give you a job so just go home, rely on a benefit’ … and I knew I was not going to do that. I know my family deserves better than that. I knew I’d worked hard enough to achieve better than that, so I did.”

David*, a former white-collar worker, is employed by Waste Management as a heavy machinery operator following a stint in Auckland South Corrections Facility.

“The eight to 10 weeks when I came out of prison – you come out, you’re on a bit of a high, you’ve got parole, but very quickly you realise sitting at home and doing nothing and living on a benefit is just a waste of time and is demoralising. For about eight to 10 weeks it was a miserable time in my life. Everybody is keen to read your CV, they’re keen to interview and then up comes the criminal activity and history and you can almost see them glaze over.

“I said to [Corrections] ‘if you can open the door to a few companies who are not averse I can get a job, I can guarantee. I’m not fussy. I will take what I can do and what’s available’. A day later I had an interview with Waste Management and two other companies and Waste Management offered me the job when I interviewed with them three days later. Honestly, it was just a breath of fresh air. When I first started here and had my first week, it was like being reborn.”

Summary

These perspectives are just a few among the 988 placements into employment since the This Way For Work pilot began. Each perspective contributes to the rich set of data the Department has been able to gather in order to strengthen and adapt the pilot as it has progressed.

The Department has two main areas of focus over the coming year for This Way to Work. Firstly, to develop the pre and post placement support offered by the Department in order to increase the sustainability of placements, which currently sits at around 66%. Secondly, to increase the profile of the pilot and its success stories in order to build on the changing discourse around hiring people with criminal convictions; it is important, it leads to success and it contributes to meaningful change in people’s lives.

*Not their real names


* An MOU partner is an employer who has formally partnered with the Department of Corrections via a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).

References

Johnston, P. (2018). This Way for Work: Brief evaluation of a pilot service to offenders. Department of Corrections.