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Take Five: Harrigan Solutions thrives with former inmates

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Growing up, Bill Harrigan was learning challenged and understands what’s it like to be overlooked and sometimes disrespected. While he grew up in the Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay, not the inner city of Milwaukee, he has a keener understanding of what former inmates go through to assimilate back into society. It gives him immense pleasure to help people through that with a job training program designed to be deliberately developmental, good enough that it would work for those with life’s biggest challenges — those coming out of incarceration — knowing that if it worked well for them, it would likely work for all.

IB: For Harrigan Solutions, has hiring former inmates and training them for jobs been part altruistic and part a matter of survival, given the labor shortage?

Bill Harrigan

Harrigan: It’s not really survival at all. It’s really just fun. We really enjoy developing people. It’s a really fun challenge to do some things that kind of cross over here. One is that I did grow up in trauma and so I get it. So, it’s fun for me to help people with that. I also struggled in school, and so I know what it’s like to be the person who is overlooked and not doing well and even made fun of. I also love business, and I love the idea that business can solve many problems and be self-sufficient.

I love the fact we do this work and we don’t accept money from anybody. It’s not an agency. It’s not a nonprofit. I believe we should be able to do all of our work and provide for our employees in a handsome way. I think it’s our obligation, and I think it’s cool to be able to do that without taking money from people to do it.

IB: But you do need to do this in order to find enough labor. Isn’t that correct?

Harrigan: No, we don’t struggle to find labor at all, and there is a reason for that. I’ve met with probably 100 organizations from Kenosha to Marinette that are also interested in helping people get on their feet and get some traction in their life. So, I know who the like-minded partners are, and we work together. So, I don’t struggle to find people. I just hang out with a different crowd. We don’t do it exclusively, but I’m very happy to hire people who are ex-offenders if they are ready. Sometimes people think we hire only ex-offenders. Not true. 

IB: This training is very technical sounding, given that your high-performance teams go on manufacturing and construction sites and in food plants, and help your clients keep their equipment running. So, the guys have to have some wherewithal to become a member of your teams, correct?

Harrigan: Well, actually, the research shows that 85 percent of the people who fail in life and business is because of a lack of social-emotional intelligence and also because of trauma. So, when everyone says we have to teach people skills, yes, they are right, but they are missing the big piece. People who are chronically unsuccessful in their life and work have a lack of social-emotional intelligence. That’s the point.

IB: How does your training address that?

Harrigan: We do social-emotional assessments and enhancement, and we help people connect the dots in their lives and learn the things that happened to them that caused them to be in this vicious cycle of not being successful at work and in their lives. So, there is that part, an assessment and an enhancement, and we work with them.

IB: What comes out of that exactly, some kind of counseling? How do you help people overcome that?

Harrigan: I personally meet with everybody once a month. They have a road map for success, and that roadmap is about what success looks like to them. It’s about their strengths and about what obstacles are in their way, and the obstacles are social-emotional obstacles. We have trusting relationships with our people. It allows us to have conversations with them about stuff like that.

We’re dealing with people who feel beaten down. They have a message in their head that they have received that they will never make it, and don’t even try. We take a very different approach. We’re very encouraging and we encourage them with relationships that affirm them and business practices that deliberately develop them and help them identify what motivations they have that are in intrinsic. In other words, that are important to them.

IB: The technical training part sounds like the easiest part.

Harrigan: It is way easier. Actually, I wouldn’t say what we do is too difficult, but I’m just saying people focus on the wrong thing. That social-emotional issue is why people aren’t successful.

IB: To what extent do you think other employers are aware of this?

Harrigan: I don’t think they understand it at all. Employers in the past have had the luxury to say to their HR departments, ‘Go send in another group of people and sure, we’re going to hire some people,’ but with unemployment where it is, the people that are provided by staffing companies and then recycled around, the success rate is terrible. The people I’ve talked to that run companies continue to do this same staffing model that fails dramatically. It’s a complete failure. Here’s 10 more people, maybe one will work out. That’s absurd.


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