Take Five: Harrigan Solutions thrives with former inmates

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.



IB: This approach to workforce development must be a curiosity among your peers in the Wisconsin business community. When they ask you about the program, what kinds of questions do they have for you?

Harrigan: They don’t ask me about it. I am surprised, but I have had very few people say, ‘How the heck to you do that?’ It’s a mystery to me. We clearly go to a much greater extent than other people would, and just for personal reasons for our team and me. I would think that if I had to hire another 30 people or so, I would be a little more curious about it.

IB: You would think with the labor shortage and the recent signing of criminal justice reform at the federal level, that this would become more a topic among those who run businesses.

Harrigan: Actually, let me bail out the people who own and run businesses. I don’t think they know there is a way to do this, to work with people who have been unsuccessful and to help then become successful and view their job as their personal vision of success. I think most people don’t know that’s doable because they have tried for so long and the practices they use don’t work. I don’t think most people know where to go with this.

IB: I mentioned federal criminal justice reform. There’s a job center that has been set up to help inmates at one institution — Oakhill Correctional — and some cities are adopting ban the box laws to prevent a criminal record from being used against former inmates in their job search. There is also growing recognition that gainful employment is the best antidote to high recidivism rates. Do you sense that a perfect storm is brewing that helps change minds in executive suites around the state when it comes to tapping into ex-prisoners as a workforce solution?

Harrigan: Well, I think this is a unique opportunity for those who want to help people find work. Perfect storm is not a bad way to put it, but people have to know how to do that.

IB: Are you willing to talk about it with others or even lecture about how Harrigan Solutions does this?

Harrigan: Sure. Yes, I certainly would.

IB: Some believe employers would be more favorable to hiring former inmates if they received a tax credit for doing so. Given how acute the labor shortage is, are such tax credits really necessary, in your view?

Harrigan: The truth is, I don’t turn to the government for anything if I can help it. I don’t need a tax credit to do that. It doesn’t enter into my thinking. So, I don’t know if we’ve ever done that or not. I’m not sure, but we enjoy working with good people who haven’t had a good opportunity to connect the dots in their lives and start over and be effective. It’s fun to watch. It’s fun to facilitate. It’s just fun, that’s all.

I think businesses talk to employees about what they want, what the business wants from the person. That, to me, is the wrong starting point. The starting point is where the individual wants to go, and how effective are we, as businesses, in helping people see their job as a vehicle to getting what they want? If I hired you and said you’ve got to be on time and I want you to do this and that, it is not emotionally intelligent to walk away from them without understanding what it is they need. By being more emotionally intelligent, everybody wins.

I’ve talked to people who have never been asked that question before. What does success look like to you? No one has ever pointed out what strengths they have. Those are incredibly and intrinsically motivating. Overlooking the opportunity of helping people see that you are interested in them, and you want to involve them in your business and provide them with autonomy, mastery, and a sense of purpose, is to underutilize your skills as a leader in engaging people.

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