SPRINGFIELD – As we’ve explored this Courageous Conversation: “Nobody’s Business,” it’s become clear that finding employees to fill open positions is a challenge. Ex-criminals are often overlooked for job openings, and could become an answer to the looming question of how to fill a serious workforce void.

Brandon Gerhardt is always up for a good laugh, even at his own expense.

“It’s a funny story,” he said. “I actually trained the judge’s dog that I went in front of several times. Now I’m pretty good friends with him and his wife.”

After all, he has a lot to smile about these days. Gerhardt and his wife are the new owners of the Howliday Inn in Rogersville. It’s a dog boarding and training facility, where the service dog non-profit for veterans, K9’s for Camo, first got its legs. But church is where the founder and former building owner, John Lopez, put faith in Gerhardt.

“My young adult life I got in trouble, started running with the wrong crowd and doing drugs,” Gerhardt said. “That led to prison a few times. The last time when I went to prison I got out in 2011. I met John at church, and I’ve been working for him, I’ve been his lead trainer for over four years.”

Josh Kutz has had similar issues with drugs.

“We look to other ways to make money,” Kutz said. “Having a job is an important part of staying out”

As of April 1, 2019, he’s hoping his stints in prison are over, now that he has a job lined up.

“I’ve pretty much been incarcerated on and off 15 out of the last 20 years, and it’s been a hard road,” he said.

Through the Missouri Job Center’s “Apply” program, Kutz found an honest way to make a living working in wastewater treatment. 

“A stack of books about knee-tall…it’s pretty extensive,” Kutz said. “A lot of math.”

The career center sends interested employers into the Ozarks Correctional Center in Fordland before prisoners are expected to be released to start the interview process.

Becky Thomas, the co-owner of Third Street Sportswear in Ozark has done plenty of her own independent interviewing. But she found out industrial seamstresses, like other skilled labor, are hard to come by.

“If you go down any street in Southwest Missouri you’re gonna find ‘now hiring’ signs at various businesses,” Thomas said. “I have one, the mechanic next door probably has one, the restaurant down the street has one.”

Turns out, the women’s prison in Vandalia was the barb-wire fenced rock some of the talent she needed was hiding under. The prison offers a commercial sewing class. And though nearly all of Thirdstreet’s sewers have worked there for decades, and have no criminal background, Thomas is open to looking in non-traditional places to find employees, as long as they have the skills and work ethic.

“They’re going to be coming back to the community, so the big question is, how do you want them?” she said.

Thomas addresses the concerns of hiring an ex-con head on.

“I haven’t had anybody steal from me, I haven’t had anybody threaten me,” she said. “They’re just like anybody else, and in some ways they’re really open about their background.”

“I got something — I got a lot to lose,” Kutz said, in reference to wanting to make his job work.

And Gerhardt is taking every criticism as an opportunity to learn and to laugh.

“I’m sure some people are a little on-edge about working with someone with a shady background. But at the same time, everyone loves a good success story,” Gerhardt said.

Both men commented on the irony of their successes. In some ways, their biggest mistakes have led to their biggest blessings.