By Chris Meehan | Jun 07, 2021
Contract sewing, light manufacturing, kitting, and order fulfillment
Unlike most manufacturers, Mile High WorkShop doesn't want to retain most of its employees.
"We serve people who are transitioning from incarceration, rebuilding from addiction or homelessness -- our sole purpose of existing is to be kind of a soft landing place for them when they're in that transition process," says Magel. "We are teaching jobs skills, teaching life skills, helping people overcome barriers, set goals, and it's all kind of done with the ultimate goal of helping them transition to a job with a company in the community, and be in a place in their lives where they're able to sustain that work and grow and live a healthy life."
When the nonprofit launched in 2014, it had a scattershot approach. It was looking for multiple partners to contract with and offering training for woodworking, arranging flowers, and making some retail products.
"We've definitely streamlined," says Magel. "We're a transitional employer. People are usually in our program for about six months."
That means woodworking is out -- the training requires years, not months -- but sewing and other contract services remain on the menu.
"We dropped woodworking because we realized that it takes quite a while to become a good woodworker, and we just are not really positioned to help people become really good woodworkers," says Magel. "But it doesn't take a terribly long time to learn how to package a KONG [dog toy] or kit something or bundle products, that's relatively accessible work and so we realized that that really fit well with the types of jobs that we were trying to create. The other nice piece of that is that if you're in a transition in your life, a relatively simple job allows you to maintain some mental bandwidth while you're kind of navigating your own life, which has a real value."
"Our sweet spot, from the production side, is that we are a contract production partner. So we do mostly assembly, kitting, packaging, that sort of stuff for other companies."
The aforementioned KONG Company is one of the WorkShop's partners. "We've worked with them for the last several years," Magel says. "They do all their injection molding in Golden, they bring them down to us, and our job is to take them straight out of the mold state and clean them up, quality check them, package them, palletize them, and ship them to the distribution center."
"Actually just this week we had one of our employees transition to a job at KONG, which is a pretty sweet scenario. I think it's a mutual benefit, KONG gets an employee who already knows the processes and can step in on day one and be helpful, and then it's win for us because we know KONG, we know they're a great company, we know that she's going to be surrounded by community," Magel says.
On the cut-and-sew side, he adds, "We do a lot of banner repurposing, so we take marketing materials, generally vinyl billboards and banners, and turn those into new products" -- like grocery totes, duffel bags, and other products. "We did a project with Adidas a couple of years ago where we made a crossbody bag, which is like the new hip way of saying fanny pack," says Magel.
The organization trains about 15 people at any given time, with a goal of helping about 50 people transition to permanent jobs in 2021. "Over half of our permanent staff is made up of graduates of the program. That's definitely something that we try to do whenever possible," Magel says.
Since launching in 2014, Mile High WorkShop has served about 200 people and has stayed in touch with many of the graduates of the program. Fewer than 10 percent of them weren't successful finding another job after their time in the program.
"We've been around for about seven and a half years now. You know, over 75 percent of the people who come through our program have been incarcerated and the Colorado state recidivism rate is about 50 percent," Magel asserts. "We've never, never even had double digits."
Graduates have also gone on to bigger roles at their new workplaces. "We had a woman in our program who had been in prison for eight years for attempted murder. She came into our program, she was on the sewing side of things. She graduated from our program into a job with a metal fabrication company in town. And she now has kind of been promoted to a place where she's been instrumental in hiring," Magel says. "That's just kind of the ultimate thing, she's now in a position where she's giving back, which is really awesome."
Mile High WorkShop was launched through the efforts of Mile High Ministries, and was supported through grants, but as it's grown it's become more independent since 2019.
"So we've been operating as our own independent 501(c)(3) for almost two and a half years," Magel says. "We are not covering all of our costs yet. Our high water mark is probably about 70 percent of our expenses through earned income, but we've always relied on donations and continue to do that. The holy grail of self-sufficiency has not presented itself yet and with COVID we definitely took a hit. . . . I don't know that we would have survived without the support of our kind of philanthropic community stepping in and helping fill some gaps for us."
Challenges: "Our biggest challenges right now are acquiring new customers and production opportunities in the wake of COVID," Magel says. "Now that we're all kind of coming back to life a little bit we're hoping there's an opportunity to step into some new relationships with companies in the community and provide a service to them as they are kind of getting back on their feet."
Opportunities: Magel describes "an opportunity for us to share what we've learned over the years in terms of how to be an employer. That's equitable, that's mindful of the barriers that people are facing, and how to support people who are navigating those types of barriers." He notes that the WorkShop has been documenting its successes in hopes of helping others launch similar programs.
Needs: "Business partners and space are definitely our big ones," says Magel. "If somebody reads this feature who is running a business and feels like they had more work than they knew what to do with and were looking for a good partner that they could outsource some work to and support the community with, that would be a huge win for us and hopefully for that business."