Second Chance Employer Profile
From its beginning with just two people operating out of a river cabin in eastern Iowa in 1976, Frontier Co-op has become a major cooperative business with 520 employees headquartered in Norway, Iowa. It sources high-quality herbs, spices and botanicals from around the world and processes and sells them to its 40,000 member stores and organizations under the Frontier Co-op, Simply Organic and Aura Cacia brands.
About two-thirds of the company’s employees work in production or distribution. Production work involves boxing and labeling products, handling equipment and dealing with documentation. Distribution work focuses on pulling products from inventory, ensuring their accuracy and boxing them for shipment. Frontier Co-op operates three shifts: 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., 3:30 p.m. to 11:30 p.m., and 11:30 p.m. to 7:30 a.m.
The qualifications to work at Frontier Co-op are fairly minimal. “We recommend that they have a GED or high school diploma, but other than that it’s important that they have a good work ethic, they are willing to learn and they have a good attitude,” says Megan Schulte, vice president of human resources.
Second chance hiring practices
“We are driven by doing good work and positively impacting the lives we touch,” says Schulte. “Whether dealing with employees or investing in environmental stewardship, there shouldn’t be any tension between doing good in the world and growing a financially successful business.”
And Frontier Co-op is proof of that, evidenced by its Breaking Down Barriers to Employment initiative.
“It was launched in 2017 when there was record low unemployment. Finding new help was challenging anywhere but particularly difficult where we are. We’re in small town Iowa. We could have sat back and waited for the economy to change or our state officials to help out, but we wanted to be part of the solution,” says Schulte.
To be part of the solution, the company set about consolidating a series of programs and processes that help those facing barriers become employed at Frontier Co-op.
A child care program – The child care program has been around since 1996. It was created to offer a service to the many employees who were women from farming families and needed someone to watch their children while they work. It’s now licensed to handle just over 100 children from 6-weeks in age to 12-year-olds. The child care program has a partnership with the local school district for before- and after-school care and operates a summer day camp. The company subsidizes part of the cost of child care, so parents only need to pay $100 per week, per child.
An apprenticeship program – Frontier Co-op partners with Willis Dady Homeless Services, a shelter in nearby Cedar Rapids. The organization finds people who are facing barriers, screens them and brings them out to work in the company’s production and distribution facility. Willis Dady does case management and helps onboard the new employees into the workforce. To date, 380 individuals have participated in the apprenticeship program through the partnership, which was created in 2018.
Second chance hiring practices – Frontier Co-op works through Willis Dady Homeless Services and the Sixth Judicial District Dept. of Corrections to find employees. The interview process is the same for every employee, and the hiring managers don’t know a candidate’s background.
“We try to understand not where they’ve been but where they want to go in their life. When they come in it’s a new path and opportunity to build new relationships. It’s not about the mistakes of their past,” says Schulte.
A transportation program – A lack of reliable transportation is a barrier for many potential employees. Frontier Co-op partners with Willis Dady to operate a van program. The van picks up employees at locations in Cedar Rapids for all three shifts and brings them to and from the facility in Norway, Iowa. The company pays half of the cost, and the employees pay the other half.
In addition, the company provides a subsidized café, with a meal costing about $2.80. “Employees can deduct from payroll to pay for that,” Schulte says. “This is huge. They can have a good hearty meal once a day.”
Frontier Co-op also just created what Schulte calls a “financial stability program” this year (2023). “Individuals put together their financial goals. They submit an application describing what their goals are, and we match dollar-for-dollar up to $1,000 for a year to set them up for financial success going forward. We select applications based on what their goals and their needs are. They set up an account to put the money in,” she says.
Although Frontier Co-op has created a series of successful programs, the effort hasn’t been without challenges.
The biggest challenge, according to Schulte, was that the company wanted to implement second chance hiring faster than their nonprofit partner was comfortable with.
“They let us know that you can’t just load up 100 people and bring them out to work. We needed to make sure that we’re setting everyone up for success. And we needed to slow the process down and take the lead from people who are experts in that area,” she says.
The challenges the company has faced come with rewards in the end. “One reward is just seeing our employees being more open minded about individuals and their stories,” Schulte says. “The employees started a giving table where people donate personal hygiene items, coats and business clothes. Individuals can take whatever they need, and it shows that employees have bought into it.”
Schulte has advice for those who might be thinking about doing second chance hiring of their own.
“There are solutions to these workforce challenges, but we need to think more critically about the role that we employers play. There’s nothing simple about some of these programs, but they are so important to our people, our region and the industries that we work in.”