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Gary E. Frank headshot

Frontier Co-op Breaks Down Barriers to Employment Through Second Chance Hiring, Apprenticeships

Through the Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative, the 50,000-member cooperative partners with local organizations to address challenges connected to employment and economic mobility — including through second-chance hiring initiatives and apprenticeships.
By Gary E. Frank
frontier co-op employee working in factory - company supports second chance hiring

A Frontier Co-op employee works in the company's Iowa factory. 

Frontier Co-op sees little dichotomy between good works and the bottom line. For example, leadership views the cooperative’s Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative — launched in 2018 to help formerly incarcerated people find jobs and address other systemic barriers to employment in the community — as primarily a “business-building exercise.”

“Our biggest motivation is, honestly, the needs of the business. Unemployment was extremely low here in Iowa. We’re growing a lot, and we were having trouble finding people who were interested in coming to work in our factory,” Frontier Co-op CEO Tony Bedard told TriplePundit. “I was looking for solutions to our employment needs.”

A producer of sustainably sourced and organic spices, herbs, botanicals and plant-based products, Frontier Co-op was recently featured on the Inc. Best in Business list in the correctional re-entry services category for the Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative. 

Through the initiative, the 50,000-member cooperative partners with local organizations to address challenges connected to employment and economic mobility. A key element of the effort is second-chance hiring practices and apprenticeship programs that help people build important skills and work experience to be successful within the co-op, the manufacturing industry and their communities.

“We direct 5 percent of our pretax profits into socially responsible causes," Bedard said. "But those are all driving our business, whether directly in the bottom line because we’re getting really good employees who are doing a great job, or indirectly through marketing campaigns where we’re able to honestly share that our story.”

"Values are something that not only natural food consumers, but today’s consumers in general, and millennials specifically, are looking for in a company, as they look at how this is going to help them live out their own personal missions," he continued. 

An estimated 70 million people in the U.S. have an arrest or conviction record, and more than 600,000 men and women are released from incarceration jail each year, according to a 2021 report from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

With labor shortages growing and becoming more acute each year, finding ways to successfully reintegrate formerly incarcerated individuals brings many advantages. First, there are personal benefits to people who can get a fresh start supporting and taking care of themselves and their families. Second, employers benefit by having a talented labor force to tap into to meet their workforce needs. Lastly, society gains when ex-offenders are connected to employment opportunities and their communities in terms of reduced recidivism and development of human capital. 

apprentice at Frontier Co-op works in factory

The Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative aims to address systemic barriers hindering employee success and economic mobility by providing support services, including access to subsidized childcare options, transportation, second-chance hiring practices, and apprenticeship and skills training programs with the aim of supporting career success for employees and program participants.

“Business does need to be a force for change, and roughly 1 in 3 Americans are or have been involved with the criminal justice system, so there’s this large population that are being excluded,” Bedard told us. “I mean, all of us sort of hit forks in the road in our life, right? Some of us are fortunate enough to take the better fork, so we’ve got to be open to this. If it wasn’t for programs like Breaking Down Barriers to Employment, I don’t know where the real rehabilitation will come from. People need a chance to right themselves.

As an extension of the initiative, Frontier Co-op recently committed $225,000 over a three-year period to continue its partnership with Willis Dady Homeless Services in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The partnership aims to expand supportive housing units, employment training, one-on-one case management services, childcare, transportation and more.

“Without partners like Willis Dady, we couldn’t make this happen," Bedard said. "If there’s anything else that comes out of this, it is that if businesses do try this . . . they need to make sure they’re using the support services that are in their communities."

Transportation is just one area where the partnership with Willis Dady has made a significant impact, he said. “People couldn’t get to work, and if you can’t get to work, you can’t hold a job, so we’ve created a van service for all three shifts. The riders pay $5, we pay $5. When gas is is $4 a gallon, you can jump in the van and show up to work.”

Alisia Weaver is one of the Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative’s success stories. An operator at Frontier Co-op, Weaver told TriplePundit that if someone can’t make a living for themselves after being released from prison, they may “end up doing whatever is necessary to support” themselves, making it difficult to get their lives on track and heading in the right direction.  

“In prison, they try to prepare you for reentry as much as possible, but the recidivism rate is so high. A big part of that is because you just can’t find a job,” Weaver said. “For any employers or recruiters, I’d just encourage you to take a chance on individuals with any criminal background. You can make a huge difference.” 

Images courtesy of Frontier Co-op

Gary E. Frank headshot

Gary E. Frank is a writer with more than 30 years of experience encompassing journalism, marketing, media relations, speech writing, university communications and corporate communications. 

Read more stories by Gary E. Frank