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Employee David Smith, left, loads up packages of chocolate chip cookies, with the help of Diana Galindo, production Supervisor, while working in the Just Bakery program, started by Madison Area Urban Ministry.

With a state unemployment rate that’s been hovering around 3% for over a year, employers are having to get creative to attract talent, said Danica Nilsestuen, director of business development and workforce programs for the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin.

Her organization and the state Department of Corrections want employers to consider the previously incarcerated as potential workers, a win for many parties, she said.

“Reentry as a workforce strategy … helps to reduce recidivism and helps reentering offenders become members of the community again and rebuild their lives,” she said.

On Tuesday, April 23, the DOC and Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin will host “Unlocking Potential: Reentry — A Workforce Development Initiative” at the Sheraton Madison Hotel, 706 John Nolen Drive.

The summit aims to clear up misconceptions about offenders and encourage businesses to hire them. The event runs from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Nilsestuen said one goal of the summit is “to have companies think a little bit differently about folks reentering our communities, and think about them as individuals and human beings and workers,” and another is “to make sure companies are really thinking thoughtfully about partnerships with DOC.”

The whole agenda was driven by questions from employers, Nilsestuen said. So many companies were asking these questions that it “made the most sense” to answer them all at once in one place, she said.

Some examples: Nilsestuen often hears questions about parole and probation, as employers are sometimes concerned this means an employee will have to miss a lot of work to meet with their agent. Other employers just want to know how they can get connected to jails and prison to hire offenders who are released.

Anna Neal, reentry employment coordinator at DOC, said she often hears that the most overwhelming aspect for employers looking to work with offenders is simply not knowing where to start.

Those are questions that Nilsestuen said she wasn’t hearing from employers five years ago. She thinks increased interest in working with this population is due to two factors: DOC has been investing more to promote employment, and low unemployment rates make companies view former prisoners as an “untapped resource.”

“Employers are being a lot more creative and thoughtful about where they are looking for talent,” Nilsestuen said.

Former prisoners aren’t the only population employers are willing to consider; the Workforce Development Board of South Central Wisconsin has also hosted similar summits in the past on youth unemployment and apprenticeships. But former prisoners are another potential workforce; there are approximately 8,500 prisoners released from incarceration in the state every year in Wisconsin, Neal said.

The conference will start with Ray Woodruff, employment program manager for DOC, giving a keynote that will include an overview of the data and metrics of the topic, in an attempt to “dispel some myths” and paint an accurate picture of the inmate population, Nilsestuen said.

There will also be a panel with companies that have hired former offenders or prisoners out on work release, which will highlight some success stories, Nilsestuen said. Speakers will also discuss labor law to talk about the “different rules and requirements around hiring or turning down applicants who have felonies on their record.”

Companies have also been curious about what DOC is doing to prepare prisoners for life on the outside, so the summit will feature a panel titled “Preparation for Release from Incarceration.”

Nationally, 90 percent of people who have been incarcerated struggle to find employment in the first year after release, according to Prison Fellowship. There are local resources to support those coming out of prison or jail, like Madison-area Urban Ministry and the Nehemiah Center for Urban Leadership Development. Just last month, Nehemiah hosted a reentry conference for the community to learn about reentry issues and work on solutions.

Nilsestuen said that while other local summits have discussed community action and partnerships, this is the first event she knows about in the region that is training companies to work with reentering offenders.

Somewhere between 80 and 100 attendees are expected for Tuesday’s conference, though attendees can also register to attend at the door. So far, employers of all industries, from office jobs to construction have registered to attend, Nilsestuen said.

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