Carnegie firm hires high-risk employees

Looking past felony records, company offers a second chance

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It was a tough job market that Jeramie Miller dove into a few years ago. Yet even in the best of economies, he was a hard sell.

The Butler County man, now 34, had no job experience and no resume. He was a recovering heroin addict, a man who tried rehab so many times he stopped counting once he got to 10. And he was a twice-convicted felon, in and out of jail over seven years for selling and possessing drugs and for aggravated assault.

He was looking for an opportunity to leave that life behind him.

"I knew my window was closing fast," he said in an interview this week.

About two-and-a-half years ago, he discovered a company willing to open its door to him. Envirosafe Stripping Inc., an industrial painting and abrasive blasting company in Carnegie, was founded in 1994 and is owned by George and Mike Vorel, a father-and-son team. Their work in the Pittsburgh area ranges from painting some of the duck boats for Just Ducky Tours to painting many of the piping systems used in shale development.

Envirosafe hired Mr. Miller, despite his background and, indeed, because of it. About 15 years ago, as their company began to expand, the Vorels decided to focus on hiring people whose backgrounds, such as a criminal record or drug addiction, usually cause barriers to their employment. In recent months, as Envirosafe launched an employment and training program for skilled trades, the company has started focusing on hiring previously homeless U.S. military veterans.

"We try to find individuals who deserve a second chance, who deserve to have an opportunity," said Josh Inklovich, the company's vice president of business development.

The reason for the pivot was personal. George Vorel's daughter was a heroin addict who collided with the law and flirted with death. Although she is now clean from drugs and working toward earning a bachelor's degree, Mr. Vorel saw that for his daughter, a recovering drug addict with a felony record, getting her life back on track was a struggle. His company, he decided, would reach out to people often rejected by employers.

After witnessing his daughter's experience, "I run to opportunities to give back," Mr. Vorel said.

Mike Vorel estimated that 80 to 90 percent of the company's 35 current employees have some aspect of their background that typically would dissuade most employers from hiring them. The company has counted among its recent employees a man who served eight years for homicide, another who was homeless and living under a bridge earlier this year, and many others who are recovering from substance addiction.

Also an employee is the man who introduced Mr. Vorel's own daughter to heroin, Mr. Miller.

When he started at Envirosafe, Mr. Miller didn't even know how to use a caulking gun, George Vorel said. But now, he has moved up in the company and works as a materials handler and is one of the leaders on the facility floor. He is one of the company's best success stories, Mr. Vorel said.

Not all of their hires are success stories, he said, saying that initial forays into their unique hiring focus "produced abysmal results." Some of their employees were not dependable, had bad attitudes or relapsed into drug use.

But over the years, the company's managers have learned to become more patient, and provide more guidance to their employees about what is expected of them, Mike Vorel said.

"Almost every guy gets the speech," he said, that the job is an opportunity they shouldn't squander. They urge their employees towards "using a career as an anchor in their lives."

Some, such as Mr. Miller, take it to heart.

"I showed up, and kept showing up," Mr. Miller said. Others have faltered, falling back into a drug addiction. Employees may not continue if they test positive on a drug test, but in some cases, if the person was a good employee, and if they get clean, they can return.

The drive toward hiring people with barriers to employment may have started due to the Vorels family experience, but Mike Vorel said Envirosafe is particularly well-suited to its mission. There is not a large pool of workers trained in industrial painting and abrasive blasting, and the work -- often difficult and dirty labor in an industrial facility that gets very cold in the winter and hot in the summer -- is not widely desirable.

The men they hire -- and it's usually only men who seek the work -- are referred from avenues including veterans groups, transitional programs for former inmates and jobs services, Mr. Vorel said. Envirosafe provides the on-the-job training to learn the trade, and as they acquire new skills, many of the employees advance in the company, taking on more opportunities and earning better pay.

To expand their mission of hiring and training people who traditionally face barriers to employment, Mr. Inklovich and the Vorels recently started a program they call Focused Industrial Training. Their vision is to transform the Carnegie site into a skilled trade training and employment center for people with barriers to employment. In a classroom setting, employees can become certified in their craft, while receiving real work experience.

The arrangement addresses what Mr. Inklovich said is a shortage of people trained in skilled trades and provides a paycheck and possibility for a career to people who often struggle to find more than minimum-wage work.

The work of getting the FIT project up and running is ongoing. Envirosafe has focused recently on hiring homeless military veterans, including seven over the summer. Four did not work out and one left to take another job, but two remain at the company. In October, FIT and Envirosafe were recipients of a Power of Work Award from Goodwill of Southwestern Pennsylvania for their efforts in creating opportunities for veterans.

Mr. Inklovich, who recently filed the application to gain 501(c)3 nonprofit status for FIT, plans to seek grants, loans and donations to raise the funds so that FIT can purchase Envirosafe to transform it into a "hybrid vo-tech."

Eventually, he hopes, FIT will spread its model to cities across the country. However, the pitch, or the tagline for the project, that Mr. Inklovich uses when he describes FIT, sounds distinctively Pittsburgh: "Paint steel to change lives."

Kaitlynn Riely: or 412-263-1707.

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