Men with criminal records could help solve the U.S. labor shortage

Men with criminal records could help solve the U.S. labor shortage

Excerpted from The Press of Atlantic City article by Shawn Bushway and Jeffrey Wenger

American employers are panicked about the lack of willing workers. They shouldn’t be. There are plenty of Americans who want to work. If you’re an employer, you may be wondering where all these employees are hiding. They aren’t hiding — they’ve been applying to your job openings, and you’ve been screening them out.

The U.S. arrests, convicts and incarcerates a greater percentage of its population than any other nation, and most employers don’t want people with a criminal record in their workplaces. Except, people with a criminal record represent a staggeringly large percentage of the potential workforce.

A full 64% of unemployed men in America have been arrested; slightly more than 30% have been convicted of a crime, according to research our team published recently. The result of our carceral state, combined with the screening tools, is so large it appears as though there is a labor shortage while millions are actively seeking work — particularly men.

The effects of being cut out of the labor market because of involvement with the criminal justice system cuts across racial lines. In the pool of unemployed men, there are nearly identical percentages of unemployed Black, Hispanic and white men with a history of arrest and incarceration.

Meet an unemployed man in his mid-30s, and there are better than even odds he will have been arrested as an adult. Employers should know choosing a white candidate from the pool of unemployed will not reduce the likelihood of hiring a person with a criminal record.

A disconnect remains between the sort of skill-based jobs these unemployed men with a criminal history might benefit from, and the restrictions barring them from such jobs. One example is the California Board of Barbering and Cosmetology may deny an application for any person convicted of a crime.

Many states institute “ban the box” policies, which refers to eliminating the box applicants are asked to check if they have been convicted of a crime. This policy, though well-intentioned, doesn’t solve the problem.

More than 90% of U.S. employers report background checks during their hiring, and more than 70% report they require a criminal background check for employees.

National and state governments can play a key role that would help employers and this pool of potential employees. Governments should ensure every unemployed person has access to employment services, regardless of criminal record. But they could go a step further, providing services customized for each unemployed person’s circumstance.

This would mean providing unemployed men the tools to navigate the complex world of searching for a job while possessing a criminal history. It might mean helping them develop skills to discuss an arrest with a potential employer. It could mean helping those with a criminal history target industries that are available to them. Or it might mean helping them navigate the “clean slate” policies that clear their criminal records after a prescribed time.

Such services are available in larger cities. Small towns, suburbs and rural areas are unlikely to offer such services to those searching for work after an arrest. And the lack of work opportunities for this population can be disastrous. Most people are unaware that in many states, those on parole are expected to pay the cost of their supervision, and paying for potential testing, classes or evaluation by parole officers.

Many employers say they are wary of hiring people with criminal records because they fear being held liable. States and the federal government could remedy the problem of such lawsuits by passing laws that indemnify employers who follow best practices when hiring job candidates with records. A dozen states — including Texas and Florida — have passed laws to protect employers from such lawsuits.

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