Fred Keller is the founder of Cascade Engineering, a manufacturer that serves the automotive, commercial truck and bus, solid waste and recycling, furniture, and material handling industries.

Cascade Engineering is a global company with 1,600 employees located in 14 facilities throughout North America, and it has additional facilities in Budapest, Hungary. As one of the largest Certified B Corporations in the world, Cascade Engineering is a nationally recognized proponent of sustainable business practices that emphasize the key role business can play in building financial, social, and environmental capital.

You deserve the credit for embedding economic diversity considerations more deeply within business. What was behind this for you?

The important thing I wanted to figure out was how to have a business answering the needs of all people as opposed to being very selective. I started out with the idea of being supportive of all folks and trying to make it work for them, including a welfare-to-career program. That has been my desire as a child of the ’60s: trying to figure it all out and make a business that is more humane than what I experienced when I was working for a very large corporation with 60,000 employees. I wanted to develop something that was workable for all folks.

You had some unsuccessful attempts at a welfare-to-career program before you had success. What actions finally made it work?

Our story goes back to a couple of attempts to figure this out. How could we hire folks into CE [Cascade Engineering] and help them be successful in our environment? Ron Jimmerson, a machine operator in the factory, was the first one I talked to about this. He had a social work background and helped organize a van that we used daily to pick up homeless people and bring them into our employment and put them to work. Everyone was all smiles, and within six weeks, all gone. It didn’t work for us. We scratched our heads and said, “Well, that didn’t work.” Ron and I were both chagrined about the situation.

A year or two later, CE partnered with a fast food operator/owner, the Department of Social Services, nonprofits, and other agencies to support employees. The fast food operator/owner suggested that he train employees up and have them work for him for six months with the promise that after six months they could transfer into a higher-paying job, which was actually a position with CE.

Around that same time, I was introduced to Phil DeVol from aha! Process, and he introduced us to Ruby Payne’s work. We started putting the economic class thought process into it and came to understand we have people who haven’t had work experience, and now we add in the cultural experience that is different. We started working on three things simultaneously: One, the idea of agencies and nonprofits supporting us. We put a social worker from the state on our factory floor to support our folks. Two, inclusion and training on the critical element of understanding what it means to be in poverty. And three, we added pay for contribution depending not on how long you were on the job but on what you had learned.

We want our employees at Cascade to have a career with us, to stay until retirement, to provide visibility, and to have a level of potential within the organization.

What changed for Cascade when all the forces came together?

We didn’t change our expectations or our work rules. It was important for our organization not to change that. Our methodology was to be supportive of those who were having difficulties so they could achieve just like anyone else can achieve. If you treat those in the welfare-to-career program differently or have lower expectations, they don’t feel good about it, we don’t feel good about it, and coworkers don’t feel good about it. It is important to have the same expectations of achievement for everyone. We found that there is no problem in achievement as long as they are supported.

We of course did implement some changes and do business differently. We implemented a buddy system where everyone was assigned to someone in the organization who was experienced to help and guide. We improved our onboarding and orientation process so it was more uniform, and everyone going through had an understanding of the whole process and what is expected of them. We improved our human resources management because we saw good reason for doing it and supporting those folks in the welfare-to-career program at the same time.

Of course, having Joyce, the caseworker, on the factory floor was just magic and a key point. And we were developing our pay-for-contribution program. We were very much learning what it meant to have expectations for our employees. Often entry-level jobs are dead-end jobs, and we were determined to demonstrate to ourselves that if people were learning more and contributing more to the organization, we could pay them more. Pay for contribution was our effort to make that happen.

What is the best return on investment for you with this program?

The best return is the knowledge that people are able to enter our organization knowing that they are going to be accepted and supported and knowing that they are valued. Having a system of support in the organization where people know they want to work there because of who the organization is and what the organization is; that’s so much more rewarding than the idea that they are working there in order to get money to get somewhere else. I believe it is borne out in the culture: Employees genuinely feel safer at work than in life at home or in the community. They feel like it is a place they enjoy being as opposed to a place where they go to make money. That to me is the return on investment.


Thank you to Fred and Cascade Engineering for beginning the thinking about stability from an economic class perspective. This, in turn, has led to years of continuous improvement, innovation, and risk undertaken by hundreds of businesses all seeking to stabilize their workplaces and employees, creating what we know generically today as resource networks for employers.

How can employers apply knowledge of the hidden rules of daily instability in the workplace to create relationships that motivate employees to achieve the productivity employers seek? Take a look at the attitudes and behaviors below that build relationships versus attitudes and behaviors that destroy potential relationships with employees.

This interview is included in the Workplace Stability book, published and sold by aha! Process.

To learn more about the environments of economic class and how they impact the success of your business and your employees, like Fred Keller did, join the Workplace Stability workshop offered on October 28. Register and learn more today.