Iowa Ideas
Iowa Ideas

To provide a nonpartisan, statewide learning experience

designed to explore the key questions and big ideas that will shape the future of Iowa.

Iowans' Ideas: At Frontier Co-op, refugees, homeless people, former inmates get second chance

May 5, 2019 at 7:00 am
    Ablavi Ditowovo stocks shelves at the Frontier Co-Op corporate office in Norway on Thursday, Dec. 6, 2018. Ditowovo originally came to the U.S. from Togo in 2010, and she found a job at Frontier by working with a job search agency. Frontier has begun working with two local nonprofit agencies to recruit workers for its four facilities. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

    It’s no secret Iowa is a great place to live. In fact, Iowa was ranked No. 1 in the country for best place to live according to a 2018 study by U.S. News & World Report. Iowa was No. 1 for infrastructure, No. 3 for access to quality health care, and No. 5 in education. Iowa is also ranked No. 1 in low unemployment, which is currently at a record low of 2.4 percent.

    With a low unemployment rate, there are more jobs available than people to fill these open positions. This gives today’s job applicants more opportunity to be selective. For businesses, this is causing some hiring challenges. The applicant pool isn’t as strong, positions can take a longer time to fill and by the time companies get enough applications to begin the interview process, some applicants already have accepted jobs elsewhere.

    “We have a lot of positions to fill, and there is a lot of competition in the area. We couldn’t just wait for people to find us. We had to step out of our comfort zone, be creative and be a part of the solution,” Tony Bedard, chief executive officer of Frontier Co-op, recalled.

    Frontier Co-op has grown from a two-person cooperative in a cabin along the Wapsipinicon River to four facilities with 550 employees. Supporting company growth during record low unemployment means we had to think outside the box and evolve our hiring process.

    One recruiting tactic we explored was highlighting benefits such as our affordable on-site child care and on-site organic cafe.

    We also looked at how we could build upon existing partnerships. Out of that thought, we created the apprentice program in 2018.

    Similar to a temporary worker program, the apprentice program offers full-time jobs on a trial basis. Frontier currently offers this apprenticeship in partnership with the Returning Citizens Program, Willis Dady Homeless Services and the Catherine McAuley Center.

    Many employers have turned a blind eye to hiring people returning to life outside the prison system, to refugees and to individuals who currently are homeless, but Frontier decided to purposely reach out and help them get back on their feet.

    “It’s easier to recruit from other local companies, but that doesn’t solve the problem,” Bedard said. “I get a lot of questions about our apprenticeship program, but you know what, I don’t care about their past. I care about the present and future. Everyone deserves a second chance. This makes good business sense because it is not charity. They are good workers.”

    Frontier started its partnership with the Returning Citizens Program in 2018. Through the program, individuals receive job skills and skills-based training. According to Dane Sulentic, apprenticeship coordinator for the Iowa Department of Corrections, 95 percent of inmates get out and enter back into their communities looking for jobs and a second chance.

    Michael Willoughby, for example, came highly recommended, so Frontier decided to give him a second chance. He was the first Frontier apprentice who was hired as a full-time employee, and he has exceeded expectations, being promoted two months after hiring.

    “When you leave (prison), you are given a $100 check,” Willoughby said. “That’s all you get. You walk out the door, $100 check. Now, we bought a house, we bought cars, my wife is pregnant, I have dogs, I have a wonderful job, and I built a future. And it’s all available and in front of me now.”

    Frontier Co-op in 2018 earned the Iowa Job Honors Award, which honors organizations that demonstrate a commitment to hiring candidates with barriers to employment. Frontier extended the apprentice program to Willis Dady and Catherine McAuley in September of that year and subsequently has received extensive local and statewide media coverage for hiring candidates that normally are overlooked.

    Thirty-five individuals — many with degrees from their home countries, good resumes and a strong work ethic — have been vetted and accepted into the apprentice program as of February 2019. Frontier’s apprenticeship program offers individuals the chance to earn a steady wage, with an increase after 10 days for perfect attendance. They also receive an additional increase in pay if they are hired full time.

    We believe it’s our duty as employers to help build our community. We want to be a part of the solution. We are helping individuals when they are at a difficult point in their lives, and they just need a little extra encouragement.

    This apprenticeship program provides us with hardworking and loyal employees. Someone just needed to give them a second chance.

    • Megan Schulte is vice president of human resources at Frontier Co-op in Norway, Iowa. This column appeared in the May 5, 2019 issue of Iowa Ideas magazine.

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