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Moving from the streets of Waco to 'foundational employment' and pathways to dreams: Q&A with David Saucedo, Jason Ramos

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Landscaper Jason Ramos (left) and Reinforced Earth safety coordinator David Saucedo believe employers investing in employees’ health, families and confidence pays dividends.

Efforts by local nonprofit groups such as Prosper Waco and the McLennan County Reintegration Roundtable to address Waco’s chronic poverty problem; help employees better manage their finances; and allow more Wacoans to share in the prosperity they help produce mean nothing if local businesses don’t meaningfully invest in the workforce. One employer in Waco, The Reinforced Earth Company, managed by Greg Ashley, is being viewed as a template for other businesses to emulate, given its unusually concerted focus on its labor force, including hiring ex-convicts when many companies have policies blocking the employment of such individuals.

The company, whose work can be seen along Interstate 35 from Hillsboro through Lorena as well as in the walls around the new McLane Stadium and all throughout the United States (www.reinforcedearth.com), has as many as 11 ex-felons who have come through a local staffing agency and become permanent employees. Some have gained industry certifications, are in quality control positions and attend McLennan Community College. A number are in leadership roles and lead crews of as many as 15-25 members. The company does everything from encouraging car pools to help employees without reliable transportation to providing financial counseling to break check-to-check lifestyles. It even encourages visits if needed to a local psychiatrist covered by the company’s insurance.

In this interview, Reinforced Earth’s local safety coordinator, David Saucedo, 31, and Jason Ramos, 36, a local landscaper who serves on the McLennan County Reintegration Roundtable, a nonprofit formed in 2012 to help ex-felons get back into the workforce, discuss job-seekers who have poor work records or even criminal backgrounds and what they need to know — and what employers can do to get the most out of them. Ramos and Saucedo are themselves ex-felons. Ramos is also director of Antioch Community Church’s Mercy House, while Saucedo ministers through Life Church Waco.

Q    What is Reinforced Earth?

David Saucedo    Reinforced Earth is part of an international conglomerate. We do soil stabilization, retainer walls, sound walls and bridge abutments. The Reinforced Earth Company in China Spring provides pre-cast concrete products that when put together stabilize bridge ramps. Subcontractors or construction companies will put the walls up and we produce the product and the technology to put it together. We make sure it’s being put up properly and serves the function for which it’s designed.

Q    It sounds like pretty hard work. Outdoors, too.

Saucedo    I grew up doing concrete work where you’re picking and you’re digging, so to me it’s a little easier than that. We have a pretty standard process and once employees are trained properly it becomes like riding a bicycle.

Q    Why is Prosper Waco so interested in your plant?

Saucedo    It involves this concept of foundational employment — basically, the very real benefits of investing in the foundations of the lives of employees who work at your company and how the turnover — well, we’ve seen our turnover decrease even before we had a different production. There’s no scientific study to show exactly how this happened, but we believe it’s our attitude toward our employees. We treat our employees with respect. If our employees are going through something, we encourage them to seek counseling. We talk to our employees not only about safety but healthy lifestyles. Anyway, Ashley Thornton of Prosper Waco started calling different people and asking if she could look more closely into how we’re doing all this. I mean, right now we’re working on a better training program for Reinforced Earth so we can do a better job of preparing employees to come through our door ready to fit into our systems and our production model.

Q    Is this just you guys in China Spring doing this or is it being pursued by the conglomerate globally?

Saucedo    It started here. Our plant manager, Greg Ashley, has been real supportive about reaching out to our employees and showing we care about them. The idea is that this isn’t just employment but a foundation for your life. That’s why I coined the phrase “foundational employment.” It comes from Greg when he talks about employment at Reinforced Earth being a foundation for the rest of your life.

Q    Most of us go to work. We might like our employers and they might make sure we have all the proper benefits, but you’re saying that with at least certain employees that’s not enough.

Saucedo    I don’t know exactly how everything came to be, but we care. We want to make a quality product in a timely manner as safely as possible, and in doing the day-to-day figuring out of problems and solutions, we came up almost naturally with the idea of investing in our employees. We treat our employees with dignity and respect and do everything we can to motivate and encourage our employees. From that, it’s turned into what it is now. The long-term benefit to the company is you not only retain employees but you retain employees longer. I mean, there are a number of different ways of looking at it. If you have an employee who has a healthy lifestyle, it’s more likely that that employee is going to be present on work days and not have a huge problem with absences. They’re going to have less stress away from work and, like it or not, stress away from work is often going to come to work. So the healthier an employee is, the more productive that employee is going to be.

Q    Jason, the Reintegration Roundtable’s mission has been trying to get employers to invest more in certain types of employees, including those who have something on their criminal records. Isn’t it just easier for an employer to screen those sort of people out and get down to business?

Jason Ramos    People change. People make mistakes, but that mistake shouldn’t brand you the rest of your life. If you allow someone’s mistake to brand him the rest of his life, then you’re going to have a big pull of people in your society who don’t get that second chance. We live in a country where millions of people make mistakes but they also have a chance to learn from those mistake. For our city to grow and truly prosper, we have to be willing to give these people second chances.

Q    The Reintegration Roundtable was introduced with great fanfare in 2013. Is the business community listening or is there still a gap between your group’s message and what businesses do?

Ramos    There still is a gap, but we are making progress. We are making headway, but it is taking time. Opportunities like this with Reinforced Earth can help partner with that.

Saucedo    I know a little bit about Jason’s testimony, and if you look at the culture today, both of us and many young people in today’s society grew up in unhealthy households or they were influenced by a thug culture that is all around us. We are inundated with messages of anger, violence, promiscuity, and these things do influence us. As changed men ourselves, we understand those influences. We can see the unintended consequences of those messages in ways that we were blind to before. So when an ex-convict or someone who has made mistakes in the past comes through the door at Reinforced Earth or any ministry we work with, it’s not a matter of condemning, it’s a matter of trying to understand and help communicate with them. For instance, we try to make them understand the importance of communication skills. They can hold you back. The way you dress can hold you back. But I’ve never bought into the idea that I have an “X” on my back because I’m an ex-convict.

Q    Both of you have criminal backgrounds, so let’s look at possibilities. If I have had a similar background but I’m trying to turn my life around, what’s the one thing I need to keep in mind when I come to see one of you for a job?

Saucedo    I’m going to refer here to Colossians 3:23: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” If you have the mentality that “I’m going to work as hard as I can, I’m going to follow all the rules, I’m going to dress properly and I’m going to learn how to speak properly,” that commitment is important. I haven’t always been well-spoken, but I knew I needed to do that. I had that lingo from the streets. I spoke like a thug because I followed that influence in my life. I think it’s so important that you not let your past dictate your future. Don’t be who society paints you to be, be what God created you to be.

Ramos    I do think a lot of it has to do with communication skills people have. Some people don’t have the proper communication skills, but that doesn’t mean an individual’s work ethic isn’t going to be good. But a lot of it is confidence. I think you have to go in there (for a prospective job) with real hope that you’re going to get that job. It doesn’t mean you will. You still have to apply, you still have to go through the interview — and I do need to make it clear to the potential employer why I can be a great employee, regardless of my background or whatever.

Saucedo    Reinforced Earth has become known as a company that will give somebody a chance and I’m honored to work with a company that will do that. Whether you’re an ex-convict or not, we look through the same lenses. Are you going to be on time? Are you going to be here every day? Are you going to be dependable and trustworthy? Are you going to have a positive attitude? And you need to have anger management tools. People are going to get on your nerves sometimes. That’s part of being human. So in our orientation process, we explain what you’re going to be doing. It gets hot and sometimes tempers are a little short. That’s just how it works. And if someone has a problem, we want people to be comfortable about saying something to us. It’s not about snitching but about all of us holding each other accountable. So we prepare people for that. And then the work ethic comes in. You have to be willing to work for what you want in life. No one is going to accomplish your dreams for you. You have to take it seriously. If there are hurdles in my life, whether I’m an ex-convict or not, I need to apply myself to being on time, be there every day, be dependable, be trustworthy, have a positive attitude. Those things will take anybody — ex-convict or not — a long way in life.

Q    Yet at these Prosper Waco subcommittee meetings I’ve attended, it does sound like turnover is a concern to where you have to get 100 applicants just to get 40 who might even qualify as viable candidates.

Saucedo    Turnover is going to be high when the employees have to work in the elements. What I have seen is that in today’s culture, the workforce is just not very prepared. The younger workforce between ages 20 and 35, they’re not well prepared to work in the elements. I’ll have a 65-year-old man who will outwork a 23-year-old man because that older individual understands the elements. He understands that long-sleeve shirts, for instance, will protect and keep you cooler than a short-sleeve shirt or muscle T-shirt. That more experienced individual will know how to work smarter, not harder. I mean, using a shovel one way will wear you out, as opposed to using it the correct way and employing leverage to your advantage with that tool. So, yes, we don’t have that same work ethic or experience that the work force had 30 years ago.

Q    I keep hearing how employers are really facing a problem in “soft skills.” I mean, we’re not even talking about how to work a shovel or what to wear on the job to stay cool. We’re talking about employees who don’t understand that just because it’s MLK Day and that federal employees are off, you don’t necessarily get the day off.

Ramos    A lot of this is parenting. There are a lot of individuals out there who probably need re-parenting. My brother and I were talking about this one day. There was a young guy helping him out and he was really taking his time at working and I said, “Maybe he hasn’t been taught how to work, he doesn’t know how to work real hard.” You know, I didn’t really learn how to work hard till I got older, but then that was out of a desire that God had placed in my heart to want to work hard. But it took me time to actually learn how to do it. In our culture today, we do have a lot of young men who haven’t been taught how to work. There’s a lot of dads who just aren’t even in the picture.

Saucedo    Especially in low-income communities, we’ve outsourced our parenting to educators or day cares or music and television. Our family — Mom, Dad, the children — is where relationships are supposed to be built and wisdom is instilled and you learn about the world around you. I mean, I had to change my habit of having my children watch a movie to keep them content because I wanted to do this or that. Our culture has become very unhealthy. My parents never were taught how to invest time (in parenting), whereas I intentionally planned out my entire week and intentionally worked as hard as I could to where I could go into work at 8:30 so that I could spend from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. with my children. I mean, this week I was teaching them the history of slavery and Independence Day and all that. So I’m investing in my children, just as Jason is. We’re investing in them now and teaching them those skills and unfortunately much of our society doesn’t know how to do that or they’ve never been shown the benefits of doing that. In God’s words, “If you do this, this will happen.” There’s cause and effect, consequences to your actions. If we take the right actions, if we plan our time, if we plan our money and plan our relationships — that last one is a huge one. Because of broken relationships you have children who lack the proper parenting and the proper family structure. My relationship with my children is wholesome. My relationship with my wife is wholesome. Even if I come home and I’m tired, I might end up washing the dishes. It blesses my marriage.

Q    Your wife must love you.

Saucedo    My wife loves me till I forget to take out the trash!

Q    So how do we reaffirm all this with our employees?

Saucedo    You help employees through your own character and the people we are. We encourage our employees to have a vision for their life, to shoot for something. Every morning we have meetings with our employees. Once a week we have a group of 26 leaders with whom we talk. And once a month we have a plant-wide meeting where all the employees get together and we recognize employees who have pointed out (a safety concern) or if any employee stopped another employee from being injured. One of the guys being recognized at tomorrow’s meeting is an individual who stopped his supervisor from using a torch without the proper goggles and that’s something that we want to recognize. When something like that is reported to me or my assistant, we put it into a system of recognition and appreciation. It’s really a mix of all these things. And that includes investing time in your family.

Q    There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the importance of job-training programs, of which we have several in this area. Are they getting the job done?

Saucedo    A lot of people are doing as much as they can, such as Right Track Ministries, which has Marshall Lopez as its head and has just celebrated its 10th anniversary. Marshall and some volunteers go into middle schools and invest in relationships with those students, ask what their dreams are and then help them avoid the drugs, the alcohol and the violence — the very things that will get in the way of their dreams. And it’s relevant because we can be training these students as early as middle school in terms of work ethics and creating a pathway to your dreams.

Interview conducted, condensed and edited by Bill Whitaker.