Labor shortages give ex-cons opportunities for second chance

Businesses building companies and reshaping lives

Labor shortages give ex-cons opportunities for second chance

It would be easy to pass Double J Manufacturing and Repair without giving it so much as a second thought. The welding, truck repair and fencing business sits at the top of a rise on a dusty rural highway that could be just about anywhere on any stretch of lonesome road around the state.

Sparks fly in the welding shop and wrenches crank in the garage as workers go about their day. What few would realize if they happened to poke their head into the shop is that some of the workers are not only rebuilding engines and battered fencing, but reconstructing their lives.

Owner James Owen almost always has difficulty attracting workers to this small hamlet where his shop sits, just a short drive north of Gackle, a town itself struggling to retain a population just below 300. At a high point he had 26 workers, he says. Most of the time staff hovers around 18. At one time, at least five of those workers were felons.

Currently, both his foreman and assistant foreman are convicted felons who have served their sentences. Through the years, Owen said, he’s become devoted to helping those emerging from the criminal justice system re-enter society and regain the trust of those around them -- and in themselves -- through good, hard, skill-building labor.

“I'm a Christian man and I feel that it's good to give people a second chance in life,” Owen said. “We have been very successful with employing individuals with criminal backgrounds.”

With the unemployment rate at 2.3 percent in the state and labor shortages nearly everywhere, employers like Owen are increasingly contemplating hiring those with criminal records that may not have gotten a second look in previous years, and that appears likely to continue for some time.

A “normalized” situation

On average, the U.S. prison population hovers around 2 million incarcerated per year, with over 4 million out on probation or parole at any given time.

In North Dakota, the number of prisoners released each year ranges between 1,200 and 1,700, with roughly half of those being nonviolent offenders. That includes people convicted of drunken driving, drug charges and property crimes.

Including prison and jail, around 3,000 people are incarcerated each year in the state and 7,000 are on probation and parole.

Most don’t find much welcome or opportunity after they’ve done their time, relying on menial but dead-end labor that may pay some of the bills, but doesn’t really lead anywhere. Transportation is often a challenge. Housing, another.

With a war on drugs stretching decades now and incarceration rates remaining high, the number of people with criminal records has grown so much and has become so “normalized” that nearly everyone is touched by it in some way, said Adam Martin, leader of the nonprofit F5 Project out of Fargo.

“Everybody knows somebody who’s either got a criminal record, or they’ve been identified as an addict or alcoholic, or someone’s got an uncle or a son, or whatever,” with past issues, Martin said. “So I think it’s moved North Dakota, for the most part, into an empathetic stage, not so much because people relate to them, but they’re connected to people who would probably relate to them.”

Martin, a convicted felon who got back on his feet, found meaningful employment and got sober six years ago, now helps the formerly incarcerated and those suffering from addiction get a second, sustainable chance.

A criminal justice system focusing much of its attention on drug convictions in the past, instead of addiction treatment and mental health care, has essentially “robbed and starved rural areas of assets and people,” Martin said.

When people are released from jail or prison, even if they had been from a rural area, they tend to end up in larger cities where there are more opportunities for work and treatment, both of which are lacking in most rural parts of the state, he said.

Rick Gardner, Bismarck-based director of Rough Rider Industries -- the job-training arm of the Department of Corrections -- said if those released from jail and prison can tackle the big three challenges of finding a job, transportation and housing, they have a good chance of success.

On the employment side, finding something meaningful that develops a marketable skill set is possibly most important.

After discharge from prison, “A lot of guys when they leave focus on the fast-food industry, and you know, most of these guys have young families and it’s not really enough to sustain a family on those wages,” Gardner said.

“Here over the last couple of years we’ve actually had a lot more employers coming to us and asking, ‘What guys are you releasing?’ and actually recruiting guys when they get out, which is a total change in how it used to be here just a few years back.”

Of course a big draw, Gardner said, is the need for workers, but he also sees more companies that understand how offering former inmates a second chance can be good for business by attracting loyal employees.

“They’re actually seeing that these people are good people, you get them cleaned up off the drugs and alcohol and where they’re able to address their addiction issues, and there really are good people there that want to change their lives,” he said.

F5 Project will host a host a jobs fair and housing summit in Moorhead, Minnesota, on Nov. 16, focused on employers and rental companies offering second-chance opportunities to those exiting incarceration.

Good management is key

For Owen, of Double J Manufacturing, it isn’t always easy and there’s some handholding involved. For the most part he’s had “minimal issues” with any workers he’s employed who have criminal records – records that include murder, attempted murder, grand theft auto and the like. He’s strict, sets boundaries and has probation officers on speed dial if issues arise.

“It's been a rough road, but we've been able to work with them and train them to overcome some of the challenges of their past and to be productive citizens of our community,” Owen said.

“It is nice to see when they turn their life around because you know, we've all made stupid mistakes in our life,” he said. “And when they see that, hey, look, I can get back on track, you know, there's a lot of reward just seeing that happen.”

Owen’s foreman, Derek Martin, is an “incredible success story,” he said, even though there have been headaches at times. It took multiple efforts for Martin to get straight and on the right path, but Owen said he’s ecstatic with how everything has turned out for his employee.

Asked what advice he would give others trying to get their lives back on track after incarceration, Derek Martin said, “Don’t give up because it can, it will get better . . . As long as you’re motivated and make a step in the right direction, then it will get better. You can’t expect people to help you unless you’re ready to help yourself.”

Assistant foreman Leo Osborne, who put down his blowtorch and pulled back his welding mask to unfurl a massive red beard, said anyone in his situation needs to be able to put in the work, both on themselves and the job, to make it successful.

“It has meant a lot for me,” Osborne said, to gain news skills from his boss, who “teaches you how to do a lot of this stuff, so people are getting a chance to learn to do things they otherwise wouldn’t get a chance to learn.”

Those skills will serve him well anywhere.

“Welding is a profession used around the world, so it’s a good thing to learn,” he said.

Tom McDougal, president and CEO of technology company High Point Networks in Fargo, who gave Adam Martin a chance after he cleaned up, said companies have to be willing to work with people who are willing to try. Each company would have to understand its own capacities for managing people with criminal backgrounds in order to succeed, and for some it might not work, he said.

Companies of course can’t hire people with active addictions, McDougal said, but effective leadership can go a long way in mitigating potential problems.

“People just have to recognize what they are getting and recognize that there may be times, and maybe not opportune times, but times where they’re just going to have to work through something,” McDougal said. “It may not be spelled out in a handbook, but it's a bit more human approach than a handbook says.”

Owen, who is working on a book about how he tackled his own challenges with alcohol in his 20s and how he’s been able to help transform the lives of those he’s hired, believes more business operators should be open to giving the formerly incarcerated another chance.

“They’re real people with real hearts and real problems,” Owen said. “Their problems got them tied up in jail, and my and your problems may not have landed us in jail, but we’re still dealing with people that need compassion and a second chance in life.”

The North Dakota News Cooperative is a nonprofit news organization providing reliable and independent reporting on issues and events that impact the lives of North Dakotans. The organization increases the public’s access to quality journalism and advances news literacy across the state. For more information about NDNC or to make a charitable contribution, please visit Send comments, suggestions or tips to Follow us on Twitter: