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Friday, March 1, 2024
March 1, 2024

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Amid labor shortage, Washington aerospace plants hire untapped talent


Inside two South Seattle manufacturing plants, work is slowly building back up as the aerospace industry recovers from a disastrous downturn.

Revenue at the Pioneer Industries plants, which supply aircraft parts to Boeing and other companies, dropped by more than half due to the pandemic and two fatal 737 Max crashes, which grounded the jets worldwide.

But a top executive says the business has had a competitive edge in weathering the storm: an eager, reliable labor force drawn largely from people who were previously incarcerated.

“When it snows, they’re there. When there’s a crisis, they’re there. They’re the first ones at work. Some of those folks get in at 4, 5 o’clock in the morning. And they just work really, really hard,” said Tony Wright, CEO of Pioneer Human Services, a nonprofit that runs several “second chance” businesses. About 60% of those businesses’ workers have criminal records, are in recovery for substance abuse or both.

When Pioneer Industries began 55 years ago, few companies were willing to hire workers who spent time in prison. That remained the case for decades, with one study showing a 27% unemployment rate in 2008 among previously incarcerated people, nearly five times the rate in the overall population.

But severe labor shortages have accelerated changing corporate attitudes.

“Employers are clearly looking for ways to expand their candidate pools and that includes a variety of nontraditional approaches to hiring, including second-chance hiring,” said Steve Mullin, president of Washington Roundtable, a nonprofit comprising major company executives.

He points to the national Second Chance Business Coalition, launched in 2021 to promote hiring of people with criminal records. A slew of big companies, including Microsoft, have joined.

Mullin, who also chairs Pioneer Human Services’ board, said that while businesses increasingly view such hiring as in their own interest, other factors are at play too. Given the disproportionate number of people of color in prison, the racial reckoning following the 2020 police killing of George Floyd has caused some to rethink their hiring biases. And as local employers delve more deeply into the causes of Washington’s homelessness crisis, Mullin said, they’re realizing that some people who can’t find jobs after their release from prison wind up living on the street.

Some also return to crime, said Anthony Powers, The Seattle Clemency Project’s reentry director.

“Most people who want get out of prison, they want to do the right thing,” he said. But they can get discouraged by not finding legal work.

The people Powers helps — who have gotten out of prison due to clemency, parole or resentencing — have recently had an easier time finding work. One man trained as a truck driver after serving 30 years in prison and got several job offers, Powers said.

Toalei Mulitauaopele, a Pioneer Industries production supervisor, knows more companies are hiring people with criminal records because his company is no longer inundated with applications. When he meets with applicants now, they will sometimes mention other interviews they have lined up — a rarity in years when Pioneer was one of their only options.

“Everybody’s looking at us differently now,” said Mulitauaopele, who himself spent time in prison. “They need us.”

Some may feel that way and still hire few, if any, people with criminal records. Employers don’t necessarily know where to look for this untapped labor source, said Mullin of the Roundtable.

Pioneer Industries recruits from a job-readiness program run by its umbrella agency, and other companies can too. Employers can also turn to Uplift Northwest and Weld Works, nonprofit-run Seattle staffing agencies that work with previously incarcerated people and offer skills-training and mediation if problems arise.

Other employers remain uninterested in hiring people who have criminal records, said state Rep. Tarra Simmons, a Bremerton Democrat and the first formerly incarcerated person to win a statewide election.

Simmons said she talked to one person turned down by Boeing because of a criminal record, despite the company’s long history of giving work to Pioneer Industries, and a Pioneer employee said in an interview he was also rejected by Boeing for that reason after a preliminary job offer pending a background check.

While Pioneer Industries says some employees with criminal backgrounds have gone on to work for Boeing, spokespeople for the aerospace goliath didn’t answer questions about the company’s hiring policies.

“It frustrates me because if folks could get a Boeing job, that would be a life-changer,” Simmons said, alluding to the company’s excellent wages and benefits.

Washington in 2018 implemented a “ban-the-box” law that prevents most employers from asking about criminal records on applications. But employers can and do ask in interviews — or find out after running background checks. Nothing stops them from turning down applicants at that point.

The law doesn’t apply in fields, such as health care and the ferry system, governed by state and federal regulations prohibiting employment of people with certain convictions. Such regulations are often intended to ensure safety and protect vulnerable people. Simmons, however, believes many barriers are unnecessary and is working to chip away at them in the Legislature and in talks with the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Far lower turnover

Decades ago, Pioneer Industries needed workers for the kinds of relatively low-skilled jobs usually associated with the limited opportunities available to people coming out of prison. When Orlando Tantico visited the supplier while working as a Boeing inspector in the 1980s, he saw people using scissors to cut Kevlar panels into liners for aircraft cargo areas.

Water jets do the same job today, operating with the incredible force of 60,000 pounds per square inch. As automation and technology advance, today’s workers need to know how to program such equipment.

Tantico, now Pioneer Industries’ business operations manager, showed off other sophisticated technology during a recent tour of a plant near the Duwamish Waterway, where hulking machines turn metal blocks into brackets that meet specifications allowing for deviation no greater than the width of a strand of hair.

It’s a point of pride for Pioneer Industries that its unique workforce meets a high standard: In 2021, the company was one of 154 suppliers, out of 12,000, to receive a “silver” performance award from Boeing. An additional 29 got a gold award.

Wright, Pioneer Human Services’ CEO, noted the turnover rate among roughly 90 employees at its aerospace manufacturing plants — less than 19% last year — is far lower than that of the overall agency, which had a turnover rate of 42% among its 700-person workforce.

“I do have the respect of the company, I know that, which is probably why I still work here,” said Derek Habowski, a lead Pioneer Industries machinist who’s worked there for seven years. At one point, Habowski said, he turned down a job from Blue Origin, the space company owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Stepping away from the milling equipment he operates, Habowski, 44, said he worked entry-level jobs at aerospace suppliers after high school but became addicted to heroin, sold drugs and committed burglaries, leading to a string of charges.

“You know, Derek, this is the bottom,” a cellmate told him during a nearly two-year prison sentence.

Habowski realized he was right. “I hit my knees. I prayed. And I said, ‘Look, I’m willing to do whatever it takes.’ “

He got a temporary job at a recycling center upon leaving prison, but said it was made clear to him that his criminal record would keep him from getting hired there full time.

Then he heard about Pioneer Industries. “I came in. I interviewed. They gave me a chance.”

Over time, Habowski learned computer-aided design and worked his way up a career ladder that typically starts paying a little over the minimum wage and climbs to nearly $41 an hour for production staff and $58 hourly for management.

Approaching the top of the production staff pay range, Habowski owns a home and marvels at his life’s transformation. “Everybody deserves a second, second chance,” he likes to say.

But not all formerly incarcerated people are ready, concedes Mulitauaopele, sitting a couple of miles away in a break room at Pioneer Industries’ second plant. Some talk a good game after prison but don’t follow through, the production supervisor said.

If candidates have completed a job-readiness course run by Pioneer Human Services, as many have, Mulitauaopele calls program administrators to ask about their attendance and attitude.

He mentors the people he hires and said they rarely falter. That’s one of the best parts of the job, said the 14-year company veteran. “I like being part of people’s comeback story,” he said.

Mulitauaopele’s own comeback story played out over decades.

When he was a 16-year-old Cleveland High School football star, Mulitauaopele, now 47, helped tie up two people at the scene of a drug-related robbery in Tacoma. Others killed the two after he left.

Mulitauaopele pleaded guilty to manslaughter and served more than three years in prison.

After he got out, he played football for Walla Walla Community College and then the University of Washington. But his athletic career petered out without the professional contract he dreamed of.

Mulitauaopele drifted aimlessly in a drug-fueled world, where no one knew of his football prowess, and asked the question he dreaded: What happened?

High one day in 2006, he backed a stolen car into a police vehicle. He later pleaded guilty to several charges, including possessing stolen property, and was sentenced to 22 months in prison.

More than 300 pounds when he played football, he kept in shape by lifting weights in prison. Yet, after his release, warehouses turned down his applications.

“Are you serious?” he thought. “You can park the forklift. I’ll lift everything in here.”

Everywhere else turned him down too, until he applied to Pioneer Industries on a friend’s suggestion.

Mulitauaopele told the woman who interviewed him that if he got the job, it would be the first honest one in his life. She gave him a plaque when he got his first paycheck, for an entry-level job inking identification numbers on airplane parts.

“I still have it in my office,” Mulitauaopele said.

“I was able to prove myself out on the floor, and I just kept getting promoted,” he continued. Like Habowski, he could have jumped to another company. He didn’t.

“I always knew I was going to stay at Pioneer as long they would have me,” Mulitauaopele said. “They’re the only ones who took a chance on me.”