Stigma of Criminal Record Fades as U.S. Employers Get DesperateBy
Companies recruit ex-inmates to fill carpentry, factory jobs
‘We have a huge labor shortage,’ CEO of homebuilder group says
Shea Rochester, who once spent a month in jail on an assault charge that was later dropped, is now wanted in a different way.
After a few months of job hunting, the 32-year-old recently got two offers in the same week. He accepted a $14.48-an-hour position at a Georgia factory that makes shortening and cooking oil.
As U.S. unemployment falls to the lowest level in a decade, driving it beneath what Federal Reserve officials consider is the lowest sustainable rate, people with blemishes on their resumes are getting second looks by employers trying to fill vacancies that currently stand at a near-record 5.7 million.
The stigma of criminal records, as well as erosion of job skills during incarceration, reduced employment of ex-offenders by as many as 1.9 million in 2014, the Center for Economic and Policy Research estimates. While the government doesn’t track jobs for those with arrest records, people are increasingly getting hired, according to economists, companies and government officials interviewed for this article.
“As the job market tightens, employers are being forced to look at the worst hiring prospects who may have seriously flawed applications,” said Gary Burtless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington and a former Labor Department economist.
Homebuilders are recruiting inmates who’ve taken carpentry and plumbing classes at a medium-security prison in Sheridan, Illinois, and are in talks to set up additional programs at facilities in Nevada, Wisconsin, California and Florida. The measures make sense for an industry trying to find an additional 200,000 construction workers.
“We have a huge labor shortage,” said Gerald Howard, chief executive officer of the National Association of Home Builders. “This has become a focus out of necessity.”
U.S. unemployment fell to 4.4 percent in April, below the 4.7 percent rate that Fed officials view as full employment. That’s a reason the central bank is gradually raising rates this year, even as inflation continues to fall slightly short of its 2 percent goal. Officials expect further hiring will help lift prices and are searching for confirmation that there’s no slack left in the labor market.
The Association of Chamber of Commerce Executives, representing 1,300 business groups, agreed last month with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to provide assistance to chamber members in the hiring of ex-offenders.
While some businesses have been interested in the past, “it becomes even more critical when the labor market is tight not to rule out qualified applicants,” said David Rattray, a Los Angeles chamber executive.
Stigma associated with criminal-justice issues has been a sticking point for millions of Americans during the nearly eight-year expansion. The CEPR estimated there are between 14 million and 15.8 million working-age people with felony convictions. An estimated 70 million have some sort of arrest or conviction record, according to the National Employment Law Project.
The interest in ex-offenders has occurred at a time that the labor market is showing vast improvement for disadvantaged groups who have had historically high rates of unemployment, including minorities, those with little education and those out of work for extended periods.
The data may “indicate some lessening of stigma and more hiring of the formerly incarcerated,” said Alan Barber, director of domestic policy at CEPR in Washington, who co-authored the June 2016 report on the economic costs of incarceration.
High school dropouts are the group that has seen the most improvement in hiring recently. The unemployment rate for those with less than a high school degree fell to 6.5 percent in April from 8.5 percent last September. The rate for those with college degrees hasn’t budged in a year.
Not everyone qualifies for a job. All workers hired are tested for drugs before starting at Butterball Farms Inc., a Grand Rapids, Michigan butter producer. Butterball has brought on 23 ex-offenders this year out of 51 hires for entry-level jobs, about double the number from the same time in 2014, said Bonnie Mroczek, chief talent officer.
“If you just looked at the worst thing about any applicant, you would never hire anyone,” she said, adding the company has a long track record of hiring “returning citizens” who typically have greater loyalty to the company.
Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, a Republican, says he’s persuaded an agricultural business and fast-food restaurant in south Georgia to hire ex-offenders after the companies were struggling to find people.
Butler recently spoke to a group at a Blairsville, Georgia, prison about to leave the facility, and encouraged them to focus on their “soft skills.” The biggest barriers to those leaving prison are basics like showing up on time, dressing appropriately, working hard, communication and teamwork, he said.
Rochester, the factory worker, says the stigma of a 10-year-old arrest made his job search more challenging this year. He started his hunt after completing a college degree in December following military service.
He landed a position at Stratas Foods LLC after attending a job fair for ex-offenders in Valdosta, a city 230 miles south of Atlanta, where 40 employers took applications.
While happy to have a job, Rochester said he understands many employers view those with any record as “the last place” to hire from. “I feel like it is always a burden,” he said.