Nehemiah Manufacturing embraces second-chance hiring and provides an example for other companies to do the same
By Kevin Michell
In the Bible, Nehemiah rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem after the city had been laid to ruin. Its residents felt defeated and despondent as their city’s fortifications, gate and temple had been destroyed. Nehemiah organized and led the work of building a new wall and, through it, renewed the dignity of the people of Jerusalem and the city itself.
It makes sense then that Lower Price Hill’s Nehemiah Manufacturing would use the Old Testament figure as its namesake. Founded in 2009 by former Procter & Gamble employees Dan Meyer and Richard Palmer, Nehemiah started as an idea for establishing a light manufacturing plant close to downtown that could create jobs for those who had trouble finding employment.
“In my previous company, we were donating about 10% of our earnings each year to inner city ministries,” says Meyer. “In the next venture, I wanted to be able to give back in a bigger way—time, talent and treasure.”
Palmer met Meyer through a mutual friend a little over a year before Nehemiah was founded. As they were swapping stories, they discovered that their post-P&G business interests neatly aligned, as did their desire to make a difference.
“We found that we shared a passion for using our God-given talents to help people and to really use a business as a way to give back in a broader way to the community,” describes Palmer.
Initially, the plan was to bring manufacturing jobs to those around downtown who lacked reliable transportation to reach similar jobs in other parts of the city. Meyer and Palmer had the experience and know-how to create a consumer packaged goods-focused manufacturer that would bring jobs back to the center of the city. But a little over a year into Nehemiah’s existence, a different way to help the area’s underemployed emerged.
“We got introduced to these additional challenges that people with criminal backgrounds have in finding meaningful employment,” recalls Palmer. “We recognized that that’s a unique population and a unique area of the ecosystem where we could focus and make a difference. And we still see that today.”
Through working with social service organizations like Cincinnati Works, City Gospel Mission’s JobsPlus program, CityLink Center and St. Vincent de Paul, Palmer and Meyer learned how hard it was for the formerly incarcerated to find normalcy through regular, meaningful employment. Many companies would dismiss applicants with criminal backgrounds out of hand, making it hard on the social workers who provide life skills training to also find employment opportunities for people who had been incarcerated.
One of Nehemiah’s social service partners approached the company about hiring someone with a felony on their record. Palmer describes recognizing the opportunity as consistent with Nehemiah’s mission but also being understandably cautious. Meyer adds that there was no playbook for regularly hiring people who came out of the prison system and, thus, there was a lot of uncertainty on how to do so properly.
So Nehemiah Manufacturing hired one person with a felony on their record to test this opportunity out. The results quickly spoke for themselves.
“It didn’t take too long for us to realize that when somebody came in and we gave them a second chance, they quickly were our most loyal, most productive employees,” Palmer says. “It really flipped the paradigm for us in terms of opening up that door.”
It was then that second-chance hiring became a pillar of Nehemiah’s mission to help the community in and around downtown Cincinnati. But there was a lot of work to do in order to make sure second-chance hires had the support they needed to demonstrate that loyalty and productivity at work. With barriers like unreliable transportation or uncertain housing situations and needs like child care, legal guidance or general counseling, there needed to be a support system in place.
“Hiring a seasoned social worker that would sit down with each potential employee to understand their individual needs [and] barriers upfront enabled us to not only provide the sustainable employment but to also work with each individual to eliminate the barriers that prevent them from being productive,” explains Meyer.
Once Meyer and Palmer knew they could provide the environment and access to social service support, they committed fully to bringing quality applicants with criminal backgrounds on board.
Today, 90% of Nehemiah’s manufacturing and warehouse employees are working again in spite of a felony on their record and 120 employees of the company are second-chance hires. Many have worked their way up to supervisory positions within the company. Meyer and Palmer both recognize this as a real way their company has been able to change lives for the better and not just those whom they’ve hired.
“This not only impacts those individuals, but it also has a positive impact on the family and others… which is another 10-12 individuals,” observes Meyer. “So with that, we have provided a positive impact on over 1,000 people.”
But the company hasn’t stopped at that. Palmer and Meyer saw an opportunity to educate other businesses about the mutual benefits of second-chance hiring. Not only could companies change people’s lives for the better by giving them real work opportunities, but the loyalty and hard work these second-chance hires demonstrated at Nehemiah had led to incredible employee retention rates, which in turn increased the company’s overall profitability.
To that end, they spearheaded the Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, which allowed Nehemiah and other companies to share their successes with second-chance hiring and providing opportunity to the underemployed while learning from one another and connecting with social service organizations. There are now 77 companies involved with Beacon of Hope that have employed over 500 second-chance hires to date.
With perceptions changing about hiring people working their way back from incarceration, Meyer and Palmer hope their company becomes just one example of many. All the while, Nehemiah Manufacturing remains focused on not just hiring people with criminal backgrounds who have difficulty finding work but offering a path to lift people up to better futures through support, encouragement and stable employment.
As Meyer puts it, Nehemiah’s culture is continually nurtured by relentlessly helping others transform their lives and realize their dreams. Like the Nehemiah of the Bible, all it takes is one figure willing to show others how to rebuild themselves, their neighbors and the place where they live all at once.