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Two Milwaukee innovators have come up with a way to address the labor shortage by tapping into an under-utilized labor market. Co-founders Ruben Gaona and Eli Rivera are the leaders at the helm of The Way Out, a company that aims to connect formerly incarcerated people with jobs. Established in November 2020, the organization developed an app that pairs justice-involved job seekers with employment opportunities and tracks their progress as they reintegrate into society. The technology, coupled with a scaffolded support system, is designed to address Wisconsin’s three-year recidivism rate of 31.3%.
The app launched in March 2021, and since then, The Way Out (TWO) has had more business than they can keep up with. At last count, they had 200 candidates waiting to be matched with open jobs upon their release from prision, and those numbers are growing. At every stage of the employment process, the organization and the app are there, recording the job seekers’ goals and tracking their progress. The data can be accessed by TWO, the job seeker’s case manager and employer. The app centralizes the information on the job seeker and becomes a communication tool that unites the three branches of support for the job seeker.
“At the beginning of the relationship, it’s us and the client (job seeker) defining what their support needs are,” Rivera said. “And then we loop in a primary reentry service provider, like Project Return or Partners in Hope, to help them facilitate the services that they’re going to need. Together we load that information into the app … The app is really there to help people stay focused and allow the other stakeholders hold them accountable. … Then (we) find the perfect employer for this individual. “
To get a sense of the number of people who could use the services TWO provides, each year at least 129,000 different people are booked into local jails and at any given time, an estimated 41,000 Wisconsinites are inmates in some type of correctional facility. Employment is a key pathway to break the cycle of recidivism, but finding a job is a challenge, even during the labor shortage. The TWO founders know firsthand about the uphill battle justice-involved individuals face; both men have spent time behind bars and are painfully aware of the challenges faced by those trying to rebuild their lives after release from the justice system.
“Ruben and I are very concerned about this time because there’s a lot of opportunity on both sides of the equation, right?,” Rivera said. “This is a prime opportunity to present under-represented and willing to work population to a job market that has otherwise shunned it. And to do that we have to have success.”
Rivera knows support is critical for justice-involved job seekers once they’re matched with an employer.
“That employer sees this as this goldmine of people, but without supporting them, (they) will have failures,” Rivera said. “Then once the mainstream (more traditional job seekers) comes back into the employment market, (employers) will say, ‘oh, we tried that. That was horrible, and then forget about those people’ again.”
As TWO works with receptive employers to match job seekers with job opportunities, they continue to develop their technology platform to create a user-friendly experience for case managers, with the goal to one day replace the siloed systems currently used in favor of their multi-user, data-rich product. At present, the company operates like a traditional staffing agency, relying on payments from employers, along with grant funds, like the ones they received from the American Family Insurance Fund Institute for Corporate and Social Impact and the Milky Way Tech Hub.
To connect with The Way Out, reach them at their website.