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His Best Employee Is an Inmate from a Prison He Didn’t Want Built

The Washington Post

By Heather Long

Ron Nelsen has been in the garage door business since 1976. He can’t recall a time when it’s been this difficult to find workers for his family business, Pioneer Overhead Door in Las Vegas.

When his assistant handed him Ian Black’s résumé in April, it seemed like a godsend. Black had more than a decade of experience.

Then Nelsen noticed that all of Black’s recent jobs were at a state prison.

Black is an inmate at Casa Grande, a work-release facility that’s a seven-minute walk from Pioneer Overheard Door. Nelsen knew the place well. He and other business owners in the industrial neighborhood had protested Casa Grande’s arrival in 2005.

But now his business was booming, and Nelsen needed workers who knew what they were doing. He decided to interview the inmate.

“Ian did well in the interview. He was articulate and respectful, and he told me he’d been an idiot when he was younger,” Nelsen said. Even so, Nelsen said, “I was still apprehensive.”

America’s unemployment rate is at a 17-year low — at 4.1 percent — and JPMorgan Chase predicts it could fall to 3.4 percent this year, the lowest level since 1969. Businesses large and small complain they can’t find workers, especially ones willing to do the arduous labor of landscaping, construction or stocking shelves. Companies have traditionally sought out immigrant labor to fill some of those jobs, but the Trump administration is aggressively going after businesses that use undocumented immigrants.

In this political and economic environment, big companies such as Walmart and Koch Industries and smaller ones such as Pioneer Overhead Door are turning to an underutilized source of labor: ­inmates and the formerly incarcerated.

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