Formerly incarcerated job seekers still face barriers to employment, despite tight labor market

With a record number of job openings, recruiters should consider expanding their search to include formerly incarcerated applicants, one staffing expert says.
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· 4 min read

Despite decades-long efforts to eliminate the stigma that can come with a criminal record, formerly incarcerated people in the US still face high unemployment rates. While the exact number is hard to track, at the end of 2021, the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) released a report that tracked 51,500 people who were released from federal prison in 2010, and found that 33% of them were unemployed for four years following their release.

The Biden administration is trying to help formerly incarcerated people reenter the workforce through a $145 million program that in part provides job skills training, career counseling, and digital literacy training. And with a record 11.5 million open jobs in the US, some employers appear more willing to consider hiring formerly incarcerated people to fill vacancies.

Brittany Sakata, general counsel at the staffing industry trade group American Staffing Association, views the current labor market as an opportunity for employers to expand their hiring pool. “This is sort of [a] perfect storm of opportunities and places where employers can make a big impact,” Sakata told HR Brew.

Impact. A 2021 report from the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) found that 75% of HR professionals and 73% of business leaders believed their employees with criminal records “were just as or more dependable than workers without criminal records.”

But Sakata says there are still barriers that can impede someone’s ability to get a job. “You have a number of hurdles. You have lack of proper identification, lack of permanent housing, any stability that’s necessary. Even [a] lack of reliable transportation, which puts people at a tremendous disadvantage.”

Locked out. Earlier this month, a US appeals court ruled that employers are not required to allow applicants with criminal records to explain their criminal history before denying them a job.

And despite advocates’ efforts at the state and federal level over the last 20 years to ban the box, which would prohibit employers from asking job candidates on their applications if they have a criminal record, many companies still ask about criminal backgrounds during the application process.

Second chance. According to people working closely on second-chance hiring initiatives, there are several ways to recruit people who’ve been incarcerated, including working with local re-entry organizations or reaching out directly to prisons to help speed up the prison-to-employment process. Additionally, companies like JPMorgan, Cisco, and GM are part of the Second Chance Business Coalition, a group of private-sector companies dedicated to providing career opportunities and “greater upward mobility for people with criminal records.”

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Sakata suggests recruiters focus on the person instead of their past, and give applicants “an opportunity to talk about their skills and their value and their interest in a role before they disclose a criminal history.”

One of the co-founders of Dave’s Killer Bread—based in Milwaukie, Oregonhad a long criminal history before he started the family business, which prides itself on its second-chance hiring program. The company’s brand manager, Cristina Watson, says the HR department does proactive outreach to potential applicants in prison who are poised to reenter the workforce.

“Our local HR team does job fairs and whatnot, to specifically let those [people] know, who are about to be released, that we are a second-chance employer and if they’re interested in employment, that they can apply for a job the same as anybody else,” Watson told HR Brew.

Watson says second-chance hiring programs shouldn’t stop when onboarding begins, but need to guide employees throughout the employee lifecycle to remind them they’re “still welcomed and supported.”

Beyond potentially fulfilling a recruiting objective, these initiatives can have a broader societal impact, because making sure formerly incarcerated people have employment opportunities is “key to reducing recidivism,” according to the Brookings Institute.

It can also give incarcerated individuals hope for their future. Richard McMichael, an accountant at Koch Minerals and Trading, was incarcerated for roughly five years; he told HR Brew, “A year ago, I was sitting in prison in a cell. If you look at my transformation. I mean, you can’t believe it, but it’s because of that one little seed of hope that was planted because a company decided to reach out and say, ‘Hey, we’ll accept you.’”—KP

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Quick-to-read HR news & insights

From recruiting and retention to company culture and the latest in HR tech, HR Brew delivers up-to-date industry news and tips to help HR pros stay nimble in today’s fast-changing business environment.