Unemployment rates as low as 4 percent mean that employers across the country are hiring workers they would have traditionally ignored or turned away. This moment of desperation for employers has created new job opportunities and pay gains for people who have criminal records.
There is a concern, though. History suggests that this trend of fair chance hiring—opening up employment to people with criminal records based on their skills and competency—won’t last once employers are no longer desperate for workers. Employers should buck this trend and continue to hire qualified people with criminal records. It’s good for the potential workers, employers, and the country.
A good job can be an opportunity of a lifetime for people with a criminal record—like Jordan Holter, who cycled in and out of jail for much of his adult life. Research and experience have demonstrated that having a job after incarceration keeps people from returning to jail or criminal activity. We know that more than 50 percent of incarcerated adults are parents; having a job makes it possible for them to reunite with children and support their families.
Fair chance hiring is not an act of charity by employers. Employers with a history of hiring people with criminal records attest that these employees are good workers. For employees like Bill Vaskie, who sees the beauty in every weld he makes, work is not just a job—it’s a passion. This level of commitment translates into job performance and productivity. The current, extremely tight supply of workers provides an opportunity for employers to expand their talent pipeline for the future.
This practice is not just a benefit to employers and their new employees. According to a recent study, the economy loses $78 billion to $87 billion per year in gross domestic output because of the unemployment or underemployment of people with criminal records. This study makes clear that fair chance hiring is an economic imperative for American prosperity.
Necessity may have pushed more employers into hiring people with criminal records, but what we’re seeing is a proof point for fair chance hiring. Employers are overlooking status for skills when hiring people with criminal records. It’s good for individuals, employers, and communities. We shouldn’t turn back.
What can we do to keep people with criminal records as vital members of the talent pool?
1. Promote policies that support fair chance hiring.
Employers resist hiring people with criminal records because they fear liability should the employee commit a crime while employed. Advocates for fair chance hiring should work
aggressively to educate employers about opportunities to mitigate hiring risks through federal bonding programs or hiring subsidies that lower the initial wage paid by the employer.
“Ban the box” policies can also support fair chance hiring. These policies require employers to consider candidates on their skills, instead of screening people out on their past records, by delaying asking about an applicant’s criminal record until after their skills have been considered. (The question typically appears early in the employment application and requires applicants to check a box to indicate whether they have a criminal record).
Employers can also voluntarily remove “the box” and develop screening criteria that emphasize skills and credentials over status. Researchers have studied the impact of “ban the box” policies, and found mixed results: call backs and hirings have increased for people with criminal records except for black men and Latinos. This bias against men of color is a labor market constant. Racism continues to plague men of color in employment, and “ban the box” policies do nothing to change that. What these findings do emphasize, though, is that rigorous enforcement of anti-discrimination policies and laws is still required. For those interested in a local “ban the box” initiative, here is a useful resource.
2. Highlight employer champions for fair chance hiring.
Employers with a long history of fair chance hiring have stories and experiences that can help other employers make this a regular practice. National leaders like Johns Hopkins University or Butterball Farms can be illustrative, but local examples will have more power. Advocates and training providers in local communities can raise awareness of the practice and the benefits from fair chance hiring by identifying employer champions in this area and creating opportunities for champions to speak to other employers and share best practices.
There are a number of resources for employers who are looking to implement fair chance hiring. A few exemplars can be found here and here.
3. Mitigate the barriers caused by the collateral consequences of a criminal record.
Without a doubt, there are new opportunities for people with criminal records. Yet, “collateral consequences”—the civil liabilities that continue even after incarceration or the completion of probation or parole—still limit access to some professions for people with criminal records. State regulations prohibit or limit access to an extensive list of credentials, varying by state, because of criminal records. It is important to balance public safety with opportunity, but there is room for reducing the scope of these restrictions. Minimizing these barriers should be a focus for advocates and stakeholders supporting the reentry population in each state. It will open employment opportunities in more fields and industries, which can increase the talent pool for employers.
To learn more about collateral consequences for your jurisdiction, search the Council of State Governments Justice Center’s National Inventory of Collateral Consequences.
4. Providers should position themselves as talent hubs for local employers.
This is a great moment for providers to position themselves as a source for high-quality workers. Providers with a track record for training skilled workers who may also have a criminal record are now in a position to satisfy an urgent demand for workers. They can also position themselves in more direct employer support functions, especially for small employers. For example, training providers can help with staffing roles (e.g., co-develop screening tools that focus on skills or credentials instead of criminal records), shape onboarding and orientation programs, and help provide on-the-job supports for workers (e.g., connect employers to social services, day care supports, etc., to help workers stay effective on the job.) These services can be designed for the benefit of the reentry population but would be an invaluable service for other members of the employers’ workforce. In this role, the provider and their clientele become valuable resources for employers even when the demand for workers changes.