A simple humanitarian solution to our nationwide labor shortage

Michigan and the rest of our nation have been facing a grave labor drought that’s impairing our economy and causing many businesses, large and small, to suffer. There are plenty of opportunities for work, but not enough candidates to fill the jobs, leaving many job providers scrambling to find prospective employees or be forced to close their doors. But most people don’t consider the large pool of returning citizens who are eager to work but are denied opportunities because of their criminal records.

Many inmates anticipate building their lives back once they return to society, but in most cases, they’re not given the chance to do so. I don’t believe that should be the case, and neither does my team at Fox Motors. So when we heard about a program that trains incarcerated individuals in skilled trades and partners with organizations to employ them once they return to society, we were eager to learn more.

Vocational Village is a training program that prepares incarcerated individuals for careers in skilled trades in Michigan. The program was launched in 2016 to provide inmates an opportunity to create a successful future for themselves and be part of a growth-oriented community. 

In 2017, I first visited a Vocational Village site inside a Michigan correctional facility as part of an initiative with our company to acquire talent, especially for automotive technicians. I met inmates (soon-to-be returning citizens) who were students in the program and learned of their shared anticipation to return to life with a sense of normalcy, and how ambitious they all were to begin working. In 2021, we were able to coordinate a tour for our entire management team to go through the facility. 

The program is six to twelve months long, and people enrolled are housed together to foster an encouraging, supportive and uplifting environment. Once they complete the program, they’re met with a job, often in our Quick Lane, and given the opportunity to complete further education if admitted to Fox University School of Technicians, which they can attend while working. 

In addition to assisting returning citizens with securing a career, Fox Motors ready them with resources for basic necessities. Each Villager receives a $500 gift card to Meijer for items such as food, gas and clothing. If they need transportation, they can get a $3,000 loan from the company to purchase a vehicle, which is paid back through payroll deduction. If they have fines or need moving or rent money, we will provide them with an additional $500 with proof of receipts. And we connect them with One Starfish Foundation as an additional resource for support as they transition into society.

To date, Fox Motors has employed 12 returning citizens from the Vocational Village program. We’re proud of the work we do to help these individuals get back on their feet, and our goal is for this mission to expand, and for more businesses to emulate this model.

Logistically, this is an innovative solution for the labor shortage that takes an investment upfront but pays out tenfold in the long term. And from a humanitarian lens, it’s an opportunity to support returning citizens in building their lives back. It’s the perfect solution to filling the talent pipeline. 

But we need support on this journey. It’s our state legislature’s responsibility to make this a priority as part of improving criminal justice reform, and we urge everyone to call on their state officials to do more.

See more on this program in the video below:

By guest author Diane Maher, President and COO, DP FOX Ventures, LLC and Board Member of the West Michigan Policy Forum.