Employers in many industries are having a hard time finding skilled workers.

In this Courageous Conversation: Life Beyond Bars we are taking a look at how employers are tapping a new population of workers and the challenges that follow.

OZARK, Mo. — “We do cheerleading uniforms, shirt, pants, leggings, sweatpants, all kinds of stuff,” said Heather Favell, an employee at Third Street Sportswear in Ozark, Mo.

Favell has been working there for about a year since she was released from Vandalia Correctional Center where she spent 18 months on theft charges.

“It’s a good job,” she said. “It is a good job. And it will keep you out of trouble if you let it. I learned how to sew in prison, that’s the only experience I had. Like 18 or 19 months. In prison, I learned a lot about myself. I learned a new trade.”

Those new skills landed her a job.

“I don’t know where I’d be right now if it wasn’t for this job. Probably back in prison, and I don’t wanna go there,” she said.

Favell told me she was surprised to learn she’d have a job after getting out.

“People don’t hire felons. They don’t. They look at you and they look at your record and they’re like ‘nope’,” she said. “And here they don’t care. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done in your past they give you a chance,”

Becky Thomas, co-owner and HR manager at Third Street, has been making trips to women’s prisons looking for and interviewing potential employees since she found out the Department of Corrections trains sewing machine operators.

“Heck, I think I’ve been up there four times this year,” she said. What we are looking for is not someone’s past, but their potential. It’s kind of a win-win for everybody.”

Thomas told me she can’t take on more workload because she doesn’t have the hands to deliver the product.

“We need industrial sewing machine operators and that’s just frankly hard to come by,” she said.

Thirst Street has been manufacturing children clothing for 33 years. The garment industry was once booming in Missouri, but now, like many industries, employers have a hard time finding skilled workers.

The Department of Corrections is listening.

“We have over 300 employers in Missouri willing to hire former felons,”
said Anne Precyte, President of the DOC.

“What we are doing in Corrections is we are identifying: what does the labor market need in the state of Missouri? And then we are bringing in those skill education classes into our institutions.”

Precythe says some of that training includes truck driving, CLD, and heavy equipment operation simulation.

“Because heavy equipment operation is a part of our agriculture industry in the state, our construction industry in the state,” she said.

Thomas says hiring former felons is a win-win-win situation.

“It solves workforce issues, it increases stability in the community and there’s just a better chance of success all around when people are working,” she said.

“What we wanna do is remove that taboo. And instead of talking about that we are going to talk about their sewing skills. How long have you been sewing? What do you like doing?” Thomas said.

While there is an increase in employer interest in this pool of skilled workers there are other challenges.

“How do we have support services in place that are unique to their needs?” Thomas said.

Housing and transportation, for example, as well as treatment and counseling.

“I’ve probably made 20 job offers over the past two years, but actually started like eight people, because things go wrong with their housing and transportation,” she said.

“There’s not really any housing here, we need more housing here,” Favell said.

Individuals are connected with transitional housing upon release – it’s temporary until they get back on their feet and find a place on their own.

Thomas told me about one woman who is interested and qualified for a job here but doesn’t have transportation to work.

“We haven’t found a perfect answer. It’s unique to an individual’s situation, but I’m hoping with this employer interest, maybe we can help figure that out,” Thomas said.

In the meantime, on an individual level Favell is figuring it out, working, and making it work.

“No matter what, I have a job,” she said. “I have money to pay my bills. Everything is going the way it’s supposed to. I’ve had rough spots, but I’m still here,” she said.

And for those who have seen these women work hard behind bars know what they can accomplish beyond bars.

Like Sharon Grant who’s the supervisor of vocational training at Chillicothe Correctional Center.

“Everybody deserves a second chance, and these ladies are willing to work. They want a job. They want to be successful. They want to be able to provide for themselves and their families,” she said. “I believe they will work harder than anybody else that’s out there, I really do.”

While in prison, offenders are not required to do any training or take a job. For Thomas, she says it means the women who are in the sewing program are interested in it and it’s something they chose to do.