Education Director Scott Koepke operates a training program at a prison in Iowa. Inmates are taught all aspects of annual flower and vegetable production, from preparing soil and sowing seeds to fertilizing and watering seedlings.
MAIN PHOTO: REBECCA MILLER
Scott Koepke tends to a raised garden bed in the juvenile detention area of the prison. He hopes that his training will help the inmates land jobs in the landscaping industry or in greenhouses.
STEPHEN MALLY

When Adrienne Simmons reviews applications for seasonal positions at Kaw Valley Greenhouses, she does not immediately discount candidates who disclose previous criminal convictions. Instead, she makes hiring decisions on a case-by-case basis.

“We recognize that people have made mistakes in their past, but that doesn’t mean they won’t be good employees,” says Simmons, HR manager for the company.

Kaw Valley Greenhouses hires up to 550 workers for seasonal positions at garden centers in Kansas, Nebraska and Missouri. While some jobs, including drivers, require clean background checks, Simmons is willing to hire employees with previous criminal offenses such as drug possession, DUI convictions or theft, for other positions in the garden center.

Nearly one third of working adults — that’s about 70 million people — in the U.S. have criminal records, according to the Brennan Center for Criminal Justice, but that does not necessarily mean they were convicted. But for those who must “check the box” on an application to admit to previous convictions, it can be difficult to get a job. One report found that eight months after being released from jail, more than half of ex-offenders hadn’t secured steady employment.

Hiring managers fear that ex-offenders will steal, harass co-workers, skip work, show up under the influence or worse. But, in industries ranging from construction and retail to maintenance and landscaping, some companies are willing to overlook criminal histories and offer positions to workers with records. This practice, often called second chance hiring, could help garden centers address crippling labor shortages — and might be the path to finding committed workers.

Researchers at Northwestern University found that companies that hired ex-offenders had lower turnover rates because the workers, grateful for their jobs, were less apt to quit than workers without criminal convictions. A second study found that soldiers with felony convictions were promoted more quickly and to higher ranks than other enlistees.

COURTESY OF KAW VALLEY GREENHOUSES
Kaw Valley Greenhouses hires people with criminal convictions on a case-by-case basis.
COURTESY OF KAW VALLEY GREENHOUSES

Cultivating opportunities

It’s impossible to gauge the number of garden centers that hire staff with criminal histories. Operators tend to make hiring decisions on an individual basis rather than instituting specific policies about hiring ex-offenders. For garden centers willing to offer second chance employment opportunities, partnering with organizations that provide workforce training could be worthwhile.

Iowa nonprofit Grow: Johnson County operates a training program at the Iowa Medical and Classification Center, a prison in Oakdale. Inmates are taught all aspects of annual flower and vegetable production from preparing soil and sowing seeds to transplanting, fertilizing and watering seedlings. Education Director Scott Koepke hopes that the training will lead to post-incarceration opportunities in landscaping or greenhouses.

“Most correctional facilities have farm and garden programs,” Koepke says. “If garden centers want to hire men out of these programs, they will find trained workers who want a chance to prove themselves.”

Rather than dismissing a potential hire based on their criminal conviction, Koepke suggests inviting them in for an interview to gauge their potential as a valuable team member.

Simmons dismisses applicants who committed violent offenses in the past seven years or non-violent offenses in the past three years, explaining, “We aren’t set up to be a test case to see if someone has changed.”

But candidates who appear promising and whose convictions fall outside these windows are interviewed and hiring decisions are made with the specifics of the charges in mind: Those with DUI convictions are never hired as drivers and no one convicted of financial crimes, such as writing bad checks or stealing identities, work at cash registers or in office roles.

“We have to do our part to be responsible as a business,” she says.

Harvesting potential

At Purple Door Coffee, Executive Director Mark Smesrud is in the business of providing second chances. The Denver, Colo., coffee shop, which opened in 2013, operates a training program for ex-offenders who learn the art of pulling the perfect shot and pour-over brewing, along with broader skills like customer service and teamwork that are transferrable to other jobs.

Purple Door’s primary mission is to help people who are homeless, but because it can be difficult to secure housing when you have a criminal background, there is a strong correlation between homelessness and ex-offenders.

Most of the people they hire, in addition to being homeless, have been arrested, charged or have served time.

Trainees work at Purple Door Coffee for six to twelve months, earning wages plus tips, before graduating and transitioning into other jobs. Smesrud believes in the potential of the program to change lives but admits that there are challenges to working with ex-offenders. One of the biggest issues: training staff to interact with customers.

“In prison, there are rules for how to do things, a schedule and routine — and that’s great for learning to make coffee because there are rules, a specific formula — but their people skills can be lacking. They can blow up about small things, like a customer telling them their coffee order is wrong,” Smesrud says. “It takes training and understanding to help them master day-to-day interactions.”

During the interview process, Simmons looks for candidates she thinks will make positive contributions to the garden center team. Although staff could stop coming to work or get re-arrested and return to prison, Simmons notes that staff without criminal convictions could also arrive late, skip shifts or show up under the influence.

For their willingness to overlook past convictions, Kaw Valley Greenhouses has been rewarded with several wonderful, hard-working employees.

“There are some really good people out there who made mistakes,” she says. “If we see the potential to hire a good worker, we’re not going to turn them away. We want to give people a chance.”

Before pursuing a career in journalism, Jodi spent a decade working for a greenhouse/grower where she gained experience in the industry and learned how to grow a beautiful garden.