Meaningful Careers for Ex-Convicts and Welfare Recipients

Cascade Engineering’s Welfare-to-Career Program

Cascade Engineering

Amy Valderas, now a team leader, didn’t have a home or a car before finding work at Cascade Engineering through its Welfare-to-Career Program.
Photo by Keith Maki

Cascade Engineering makes a wide variety of injection-molded plastic parts used in myriad products, including cars, furniture and manufacturing equipment.

For two decades Cascade has been hiring people almost no one else would hire, and the company has made a profit doing it.

Cascade is committed to hiring ex-offenders and welfare recipients from around its hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan. It is one of the largest B Corps in the network, with 1,600 employees in 14 U.S. locations, a plant in Budapest, Hungary, and projected 2016 revenues of $400 million.

So far, some 800 men and women have found jobs through Cascade’s Welfare-to-Career program, a model that has been replicated at 15 other companies in southwest Michigan and has drawn interest from agencies in three other states.

How Cascade Engineering Creates Meaningful Careers for People in Poverty

Founder Fred Keller was looking for ways his business could help people climb out of poverty, and one way was to provide jobs for ex-convicts and welfare recipients. But when he started his new hiring process, culture clashes and heavy turnover threatened to derail the effort.

“We made many mistakes initially,” Chief Administrative Officer Kenyatta Brame says. Supervisors had preconceived notions about welfare recipients and people from generational poverty, for example, and new employees lacked grounding in workplace basics, such as showing up on time.

The turning point came when Michigan’s Department of Human Services agreed to move caseworker Joyce Gutierrez-Marsh’s office to Cascade’s Grand Rapids campus. As a social worker, she knew how to guide new staffers toward more productive behaviors. “Joyce can ask questions that we can’t ask,” Cascade’s Director of Marketing Keith Maki says.
Gutierrez-Marsh had access to client files and state resources — and clients could see her without taking time off work. Supervisors learned to refer problems with Welfare-to-Career employees directly to her. Gutierrez-Marsh also helped Cascade develop a more thorough screening process for potential Welfare-to-Career candidates.

The stories of the employees whose lives have been positively impacted by Cascade’s programs are numerous. What did Jahaun McKinley learn during 19 years behind bars that helps him as a lean manufacturing system manager? “Patience,” he says without a moment’s hesitation.

When you’re incarcerated, “Everything is at the time and convenience of some other person,” he says. Learning patience gives you the ability to roll through the things you can’t control.

McKinley went to prison two weeks after he turned 18. Almost two decades later, he started his first real job in the Returning Citizens program at Cascade Engineering, and quickly figured out, “I might have some real opportunities here.”
Since 2009 McKinley has risen from shop floor to supervisor, and has a plan for his next move to director of operations. “I have a certain level of expectation for myself,” he says.

Amy Valderas had no job and no home of her own when she found work at Cascade. She struggled with taking cabs and buses to get her three children to daycare and herself to work until Gutierrez-Marsh helped her figure out how to buy a reliable car. Sixteen years later, Valderas is a team leader at the company and a homeowner whose eldest daughter recently graduated from college. “I come to work every day with a smile,” she says.

This article originally appeared as one of four companies employing the “unemployable” and creating an inclusive economy in the Pathways department of the Summer 2016 issue of B Magazine. Read about the other companies profiled: Greyston Bakery, Jack’s Bar & Grill, and Community Home Care Associates.

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