Transportation options for frontline workers

Mike Kralik listened intently as local companies described the challenges and triumphs of hiring traditionally hard-to-hire individuals – those with criminal records or in poverty or facing other barriers to employment. Kralik is the plant manager at Continental Building Products, and they are considering a similar effort.

In addition to tapping into a new pool of candidates, Kralik said, “The community aspect is important to us.” It was a familiar refrain at the most recent Cincinnati Works Employer Seminar.

The prevailing opinion among presenters and guests was that it takes a community of service providers to successfully integrate and retain those hard-to-hire individuals – and the coordinated effort pays off for the employer, employee and community at-large.

The primary focus of this seminar was transportation, and Beacon of Hope Business Alliance and Changing Gears described unique alternatives for employees who lack reliable, affordable options.

Beacon of Hope has multiple vans that deliver workers (most of them entry-level workers, many with criminal records) to employers in outer-ring neighborhoods where bus service is limited or non-existent. Changing Gears provides opportunities for low-income individuals to purchase cars at deeply discounted rates.

Both organizations work in conjunction with Cincinnati Works and other non-profits to ensure their clients are addressing all of the underlying issues that have hindered their careers.

“It takes a village,” said Jessica Wright, Director of Member & Employer Services at Cincinnati Works, “and we want to be your village.”

Kralik and his colleague, human resources manager Shonagh Stringfellow, have been researching ways to recruit and integrate hard-to-hire individuals. They appreciated the content enough to schedule a follow-up meeting with Cincinnati Works and Beacon of Hope.

“It is interesting what other groups are doing to make it a win-win situation for everyone,” Kralik said.

Nehemiah Manufacturing began hiring individuals with criminal records and other barriers to employment nearly 10 years ago, and they are now recognized as a second-chance employer. Beacon of Hope was borne out of Nehemiah’s experience with those non-traditional employees – specifically, the 10 to 15 percent who struggled to hold onto their job with Nehemiah.

“Transportation bridged that gap,” said Katie Schad, business manager at Beacon of Hope.

Beacon of Hope currently has three vans and will soon add a fourth. They run Monday through Friday, occasionally on Saturday, and serve all three shifts. They pick up most of their riders at Nehemiah’s office in Lower Price Hill but sometimes pick up riders who live along one of the van routes.

Workers can ride for free for two weeks, then they pay $25 per week. Employers match that fee. Because all riders also are Cincinnati Works Members, they set a goal of purchasing a car within six months.

“We don’t want this to be a permanent solution,” Schad said. “We want it to be a Band Aid.”

JBM Packaging in Lebanon began utilizing Beacon of Hope shortly after committing to being a second-chance employer. They realized quickly that transportation was a barrier for many of their new employees.

“We were throwing a Hail Mary,” said Chris Sutton, a life coach at JBM. “The great thing about using Beacon of Hope is there isn’t a lot of bureaucracy or red tape. You deal directly with Katie. It has been so, so, so incredibly helpful. It has allowed us to bring in so many people who otherwise would have been phenomenal candidates who just couldn’t work for us.”

Joel Bokelman and his wife founded Changing Gears with the same goal in mind: allowing more job candidates access to jobs outside the city.

Bokelman cited a study by the University of Minnesota Accessibility Observatory that only 5% of jobs in Greater Cincinnati are accessible by bus within an hour or less. He told the story of a Changing Gears client named John who rode a bus 90 minutes each way to and from work, then bought a car and cut his commute to 30 minutes.

“That’s two hours every day that he can do something other than sit on a bus,” Bokelman said. “I know John is going to be a better employee because of that time he now has.”

Changing Gears is located in CityLink Center, so all of its clients work with SmartMoney Community Services to establish financial goals and many work with Cincinnati Works to establish career goals. When a client meets certain professional and financial benchmarks, they are able to purchase a car with an affordable, one-year loan.

Bokelman said Changing Gears has helped 118 clients purchase cars and 117 have either paid back the loan within a year or are on track to do so, which speaks to the value of the partnership with other service organizations.

Beacon of Hope has formed similar partnerships for the same reason.

“It truly is a partnership for the client,” Schad said. “We might take the lead on coordinating schedules and services, but everyone plays a part, because self-sufficiency looks different for everyone.”