By Kelsey Brokaw, Built Green Coordinator
Square Peg Development isn’t your usual construction business. It’s a social enterprise that strives for both profitability and positive social change. But it didn’t begin that way.
According to Amy King, who co-founded the business with her husband, Brady, “The mission of our company happened to us.” So what was the catalyst and why are we at Built Green so proud to count Square Peg among our members? The short version is that Amy has proven that a successful business can also substantially ease the reintegration of those with histories of incarceration, addiction, and homelessness while simultaneously training the next generation of construction workers in the green techniques they will need to thrive.
The long version? Keep reading.
Even in booming Seattle, the construction industry faces a substantial labor shortage. Four and a half years ago, that reality hit the Kings full force when Brady was set to build 11 homes by himself and couldn’t find any laborers to hire. Eventually, Square Peg connected with a company that employed individuals with a criminal background. Hiring those first six men was the start of something new. Now, 90 percent of Square Peg’s employees have had a history of incarceration, addiction recovery, and/or homelessness. Making that first leap was initially a bit intimidating but it’s clear that Amy has no regrets. She now frequently speaks about re-entry with other business owners and has visited almost every prison in the state.
How does Amy help her employees transition into the workforce while still cultivating a successful business? It helps that her employee pool is essentially a pipeline of people that can fill the industry’s labor shortage. It helps more so that most of those people come to work as though they have something to prove. Amy describes her reintegrating employees as “Very, very conscientious, very hardworking … in a lot of ways they’re better than most employees.” Amy very deliberately aims to provide the kind of supportive community that is needed to maximize that work ethic, for the good of the individual and the company.
Amy has learned through her own extensive research that conditions like prison or addiction are “Very sterile, dark, and lonely place(s) to live.” She tries to make her company a contrast: creative, lively, and supportive. One way of accomplishing this is with a very intentional family model, which, in addition to a nurturing community, also provides a sense of ownership, giving employees even more reason to connect to their work beyond a paycheck. In the end, Square Peg employees are conspicuously more loyal than most in the industry and, Amy will gladly tell you, exceedingly less likely to relapse into a life of crime, addiction, or homelessness.
Amy’s goal is to be the conduit that connects marginalized populations to opportunity. It isn’t uncommon for such populations to make up a considerable number of construction laborers. What is uncommon is Square Peg’s transparency about their workforce. In Amy’s words, “We want to advocate for our population and educate the community about who these people are and where they come from.” In a place like Seattle, that doesn’t drive clients away. In fact, it has them lining up at the door.
Nor does Square Peg’s employee pool hinder typical business operations. The family model, and its resultant allegiance, ensures that employees are ready to step up and help when the company needs it. If that means sometimes scheduling enough staff to cover a meeting with a correctional officer, so be it. When it comes to business ownership, Amy points out not an obstacle, but instead a benefit that she thinks every employer should take advantage of: the Federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit. The process is simple and employers get a sizeable tax credit at the end of the year for every eligible employee. She can’t emphasize enough, “It is phenomenal.”
Square Peg’s family model isn’t just about the employee community; it is also a reflection of a changing industry. The traditional ways of family trade and apprenticeship have lost ground to new sectors and university education. Amy found a new source of recruits to fill the construction industry’s labor shortage and paired it with the traditional idea of a family legacy. Because of her employees’ nontraditional path and her company’s culture, Amy has a collection of blank slates on which to draw her vision of the industry’s future.
So what does that future look like?
As Amy points out, businesses today must take steps to stay relevant to the demands of the market or else risk “Find(ing) yourself without a job at some point.” In Seattle, responding to the demands of today’s market means building green, which is more than fine by us! To date, Square Peg has enrolled more than three dozen units with Built Green and had 11 units certified as 4-Star Built Green. Amy knows that environmental sustainability and sustainability of community go hand in hand, which is why Square Peg goes green when given the chance.