Seven years ago, Jahaun McKinley could not have imagined his life today — a thriving career, a place in his community as a mentor and role model to at-risk youth. That’s because as of 2009, McKinley had spent more than half his lifetime — 19 years — in prison. Now he’s part of a growing hiring trend that is solving western Michigan’s skilled labor shortage in unexpected ways. “When I came out, I didn’t have any work experience other than what I’d done while incarcerated,” says McKinley, who was 18 when he entered prison on a felony assault conviction. Soon the rejections piled up as he struggled to find a foothold in a job market that treated his criminal record like a scarlet letter.
Everything changed, however, when a local nonprofit connected McKinley to his current employer, Cascade Engineering — a Grand Rapids manufacturer that has been creating career pathways for those returning from prison for over a decade. Six years and two promotions later, McKinley oversees six of their plants as a Lead Manager and is one of their top employees.
“Jahaun is a phenomenal worker, but he was overlooked by other employers,” says Kenyatta Brame, executive vice president at Cascade, which currently counts more than 75 formerly incarcerated workers among their staff of 690.