An Innovative Staffing Company Helps An Overlooked Labor Pool Fill Construction Needs
Margo Walsh knows the power of connections. She saw it for years in her work as a recruiter for a New York investment firm, a competitive field that had her visiting Ivy League schools and helping students envision their professional success. Now, she sees it as the leader of MaineWorks, an innovative staffing agency located in Portland, Maine. MaineWorks links people in recovery from substance abuse and reentry from jail or prison with construction companies that need workers — an even more important pairing now amid growing labor shortages.
“That’s my superpower — to be able to hustle and meet everybody and put it together in this web,” Walsh says. “I always just relied on my capability of connecting. It’s a lot of work, and it’s a lot of connections, and I happen to really thrive in that.”
MaineWorks was born when Walsh decided to merge her professional experience as a recruiter with her volunteer experiences at a substance abuse clinic and the local county jail. In recovery herself, Walsh knows the importance of integrative recovery programs that support people as they make a fresh start. MaineWorks also is a business founded with a focus beyond profit, operating since 2013 as a Certified B Corporation that measures and values its social and environmental impact.
Creating an economy that works for all people is one of the B Corp community goals, and MaineWorks does that by connecting people with work and companies with needed labor. This became even more critical after the emergence of COVID-19, which created higher demand for construction labor (a designated essential work force during the pandemic) as well as a tighter labor market.
Walsh and I recently spoke as part of my research on purpose-driven companies, and she shared more about the launch of MaineWorks, how it helps strengthen the local workforce as well as local companies, and its ongoing expansion, connecting more people with new opportunities and quality jobs.
Building Bridges While Building The Economy
The concept for MaineWorks originated in 2010, when Walsh was a mother to two children at home and a volunteer at both a Maine drug and alcohol center and the Cumberland County Jail pre-release program.
“The corrections officer responsible for the job placement couldn’t be bothered to find good work options for the inmates,” she says. “I thought, ‘If you guys would allow me, I can help you find a better job.’ It’s what I’ve done my whole life.”
That led to Maineworks starting to help those people who could participate in the pre-release work program get jobs. She worked with the sheriff and jail staff to identify industrial construction — highways, bridges, roads — as a good fit in terms of training as well as liability aspects.
“If I put them at a construction site, they will be managed and monitored and trained in a way that would actually be really productive,” she says. “These guys had stable housing, three meals. It was ideal for the construction clients and great for the guys because they were paid a federal mandated wage for labor on a highway project.”
From its start, when it was just Walsh driving her minivan full of workers to construction client work sites, MaineWorks has grown from annual revenues of $250,000 to $2.5 million and has helped 1,000 people connect with employment. She sees even greater potential for growth, pointing to infrastructure proposals at the federal level that would provide a big funding boost to construction work as a huge opportunity to expand programs like MaineWorks and create additional opportunities for people who face employment barriers.
While the newly hired gain valuable skills that can serve them in the future, the construction companies also benefit from a steady source of willing workers. MaineWorks provides crucial stability for those people who are formerly incarcerated, in a pre-release work program, or in recovery from substance use disorder who often have led turbulent lives.
“If you’re going to get out of jail and you’re not going to go into a program of recovery immediately, you will fail,” Walsh says. “People in that early stage of re-entry are highly vulnerable and could be the most easily exploited. We’re serious about helping those who are willing to help themselves.”
And in the process, MaineWorks gives the local economy a boost while relieving the taxpayer burden for treatment programs or incarceration and creating taxpayers.
Expecting Businesses To Do Better — For All
Walsh says anyone who joins MaineWorks has a better-than-average chance of success in holding a steady job. “People who stay engaged and employed, showing up every day for six weeks, have a 75% chance of being happily ever after,” she says. “You take a social problem, then you find a private solution, and you have to go for it and just keep doing that. That’s where change happens.”
Operating a business that is a force for positive change as part of the B Corp community reflects Walsh’s belief that companies focused on social and environmental impact will be the norm in the future.
“That’s why I love the B Corp certification,” she says. “It requires that you should be evaluated and that what you say you do, you do — the rigor. Companies should be willing to have their impact measured. That’s to me the biggest opportunity we have. Companies should be held accountable for their negative impacts.”
She sees this expectation in her sons and others in younger generations, who value environmental advocacy and inclusive policies and make buying decisions based on those issues, and says impact will be an even more important economic factor in the future.
“That will start to decide whether they’re going to buy socks at Bombas or at Walmart,” she says. “You’re going to find a lot more younger people are making those economic decisions. That is the future. One of my son only wears Patagonia, which I find really funny because he's pretty frugal and yet he said, ‘But it’s the best product.’”
As the world moves toward reopening after COVID-19 shutdowns, she sees this time as an opportunity to question the “normal” ways of doing business and expand social and environmental expectations for companies.
Finding Financial Stability And Opportunities For Growth
Walsh has expanded her MaineWorks team and tapped others for help along the way. While she excels at networking, she admits that the business side of things is not her forte.
“I knew about recruiting, but I didn’t know how to run a business,” she says. “My business structure was basically at the mercy of a local bookkeeping company, and so we just operated with a wing and a prayer until my son stepped in. Now we have paid off all our debt. We’re running full throttle, which is exciting because I never expected to get there.”
Like its program participants, MaineWorks has found new opportunities thanks to that financial stability. MaineWorks is expanding into northern Maine as well as New Hampshire and Massachusetts, which were hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic and have concentrations of recovery programs.
An enduring requirement from COVID-19 is that all MaineWorks employees reside in sober houses. “These people in transition are living in stable environments where most of their needs are addressed,” Walsh says. “Then we provide free transportation for everyone to and from the job site, so that erases the hurdles for someone seeking employment.”
But the need for such programs across the country goes beyond the available resources and existing policy. While MaineWorks focuses on giving people a fresh start, other businesses that want to be inclusive with hiring may not be prepared for all of the surrounding issues.
“The federal government has a way of functioning that sets a standard for the entire country and then each state can do their own thing,” she says. “We need to provide a better and more inclusive landscape of this for-profit and nonprofit partnership opportunity.”
Walsh has done that in Maine. Along with her sister, Elaine Walsh Carney she launched a 501(c)3 nonprofit called the Maine Recovery Fund that provides supportive services including housing assistance, free transportation, dental intervention and telemental health. MaineWorks has developed a pre-apprenticeship model to document transferable skills. It’s a model that she says should become the norm in the future.
Walsh feels strongly that a for-profit company working with a partner non-profit with appropriate government engagement is the way to address burgeoning social issues. “Finding a different way forward is absolutely available to all of us,” she says.