Wisconsin Business Hires On, Helps Former Inmates Succeed

Jul 17, 2018

Re-entry into society after incarceration can be hard.

It might not be easy to land a job, and sometimes, it's even harder to keep one.  One company is trying to change that for some of its workers.

Workers for Cedarburg-based Harrigan Solutions are in the business of keeping industrial machines running.

The company has groups of workers they call “crews” stationed and providing machine maintenance at corporations around southeastern Wisconsin.

And members of one of Harrigan's crews all have something in common: they've been incarcerated.

Some had limited days in work release, others were imprisoned for decades. 

Company owner Bill Harrigan says when people have spent time in jail or prison, it may be tough for them to get a family-supporting job. Things like an uneven work record or spotty skills training may stand in the way. There's also the stigma that follows many former inmates.

So Harrigan Solutions uses novel approaches to motivate the workers and help them succeed. One method involves on-the-job competitions when they're making repairs to the machinery. Supervisor Brandon Sayre says the workers are treated like “pit crews” on a race car team.

“If you watch any racing, it’s all about times, down to the seconds," he says. "We focus on the reduction of pit-times, meaning the down-time of the machine when we’re servicing it. We make a competition out of it."

The crews that perform the best can win prizes -- and the admiration of colleagues. There's even a banquet at the end of the year.

Ryan Young says the structure motivates him. "It is friendly competition, but we're all pretty close here. We get pretty competitive, and it kind of makes it fun. Gives us a reason to work harder, work faster, work better."

Harrigan Solutions also encourages the workers to motivate and support each other. They have a compliment board of good work throughout the week and share technical innovations. At that weekly meeting, they also talk about their coworkers' strengths. 

On this evening, when it's Young's turn to share his thoughts about a co-worker's strengths, he says: “You are a woo-er, you’re good at talking to people and getting them to understand--is my definition of woo."

Supervisor John Montez describes how the strengths exercise pays off. "If one of us has, one of his strengths is organization, then when we go out to go do a job, he would be in charge: 'ok you’ve got good organization skills, so you be in charge of organizing the area, or the job.'" 

Harrigan Solutions also has employees use online strength-finding questionnaires, and helps them to develop those strengths in the workplace. 

Company owner Bill Harrigan says the workers have told him the approach changes how they view themselves -- and the opportunities that lie ahead. “And that’s incredibly motivating to someone who’s never, well, first of all, had anyone that has asked them what success looks like to them. And, many people, this population, they’re not even aware that they have strengths. So they all know what it’s like to feel like nobody wants you, nobody cares, nobody thinks you have any potential."

"This isn't just a job. It's a chance to belong, to join the rest of the world. It's to be counted, to be counted-on. It's a family."

Harrigan's goal is to give the former inmates a chance to show society they've changed. "This isn’t just a job. It’s a chance to belong, to join the rest of the world. It’s to be counted, to be counted-on."

Harrigan also says that hiring these workers makes business sense. He says businesses have a demand for employees, this population provides the supply.

The employees say they appreciate the opportunity.

Kelly Saldivar, who spent 20 years in prison, says he also appreciates having a job where he can be open about his past.

"I had many other jobs, and many of them didn’t understand at all what I went through," he says. But this company here, because everybody’s been incarcerated, and because the bosses know about it all... the emphasis is more about what I'm doing now, than what I did in the past."

Editor's note: This post has been updated to remove references to specific company names.