Member Profile: Maine Works, Portland, Maine

MaineWorks_Margo Walsh3Year business began: 2011
Jobseekers placed last year: 260

MaineWorks is a Certified B Corp founded by Margo Walsh, a social entrepreneur who’s passionate about helping employ Maine’s high number of nonviolent ex-offenders who are former drug abusers. MaineWorks’ industry focus is industrial construction and transportation infrastructure, and the company’s annual revenues have doubled each year to reach nearly $2 million.

Last year, the Portland, Maine chapter of SCORE selected MaineWorks for its 2014 Successful Innovative Small Business award, and MaineBiz named Margo one of its 2014 “Women to Watch.”

How did you get into the alternative staffing business?
I started this business to help others with addiction challenges to rebuild their lives. My professional background is in corporate recruiting. I began my career in Goldman Sachs’ investment banking division in New York City and then recruited for a decade for Hewitt, the international human resources consulting firm, before returning to Maine for family reasons. After my divorce and my own recovery from alcoholism, I was looking to return to the workforce.

I had helped counsel inmates with substance abuse issues at the Cumberland County Jail and heard attorney F. Lee Bailey speak about Maine’s high level of incarceration related to opiate addiction and the employment and recovery challenges these individuals face after their release. To address this issue, a partner and I started Maine Day Labor, and I later incorporated on my own as MaineWorks.

What population does MaineWorks employ?
Most of our employees are men in recovery from substance abuse. Many come from low socio-economic backgrounds and have previous non-violent felony convictions. Over half are young adults, age 24 or less. I find that most of these job seekers are relatively high-functioning if you take drugs and alcohol out of the equation.

How are candidates referred to your staffing service?
I recruit workers from “sober living homes,” small group homes that help people in rehab to transition to living independently. We also get a lot of word-of-mouth referrals. At one point, I recruited employees from pre-release centers run by the Department of Corrections, but have found that many of these individuals do not necessarily want to get sober.

What types of support services are most critical to your employees’ workplace success?
Transportation and affordable housing are the two biggest challenges. We provide transportation to work sites for about 95% of our candidates. Lack of self-care – basic health and dental care – is also an issue. People forgo routine checkups or ignore minor health issues because money is tight.

We offer a WorkWell program to workers who show up every day for at least two weeks. This is a comprehensive social needs evaluation we use to address obstacles in our workers’ lives outside of work, through referrals to appropriate social services. Goodwill Industries of Northern New England and local United Way agencies are our referral partners.

What types of employers do you serve?
We’ve seen strong demand from industrial construction and excavation companies and their subcontractors, including Cianbro, Shaw Brothers, PC Construction and other members of the Associated General Contractors of America. We also do business with the Maine Department of Transportation (DOT), commercial groundskeeping firms and moving companies.

What marketing methods or messages have you found to be most effective in attracting new customers?
Initially, it was all about networking. I visited work sites to promote our services to the foremen, and got involved with the Association of Contractors and Association of Manufacturers. My main message continues to be our commitment to deliver on-time, motivated, sober workers. All of our workers are OSHA 10 Certified and comply with DOT’s drug testing protocol.

We do a significant amount of business with the Maine DOT as well. Early on, as we established our credibility, a friend at CPM Construction connected me to this agency, and I got my Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) designation in 2012. The state understands that employment is a key element in reducing recidivism and lowering their long-term costs, and that’s a compelling value proposition.

Approximately how many of your workers convert to hire outside of MaineWorks?
Overall, our conversion rate is about a third. Of 260 total workers we placed last year, 80 converted to external employment and about 30 continue to work for us. The rest, about 150 workers, are short-term and transient, typically leaving after three weeks.

What are the biggest challenges of operating a staffing service in your market?
As we grow, recruitment is a challenge. It’s harder to find candidates that are stable enough for regular employment.

What are your organization’s main goals for the future?
One next step is creating an apprenticeship to the construction industry. I’d like to start working with high school programs and Southern Maine Community College and create an apprenticeship program that is meaningful and involves training and life skills.

Part of my five-year plan is to expand to New Hampshire and beyond. Recently I’ve been approached by people in Memphis and Denver who would like to replicate MaineWorks in those markets and are bringing resources to the table, so I’m exploring those opportunities.

As a manager, what do you wish you had more time for?
New market development. I’m very immersed in the day-to-day operations of the company and find it hard to step back and focus on big picture issues and opportunities.

What about MaineWorks makes you most proud?
The success of our workers and the size of the company. We have 70 guys out on assignment today!

What advice would you offer to someone considering alternative staffing as a strategy in their community?
It’s important to know your candidates and ensure they’re living in a stable situation. Knowing who you’re hiring is critical to maintaining your credibility with employers.

To learn more, please visit Maine Works on the web.

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