(This post originally appeared on The Guardian)
The economy is growing, the unemployment rate is at historically low levels and most companies – particularly small businesses – are struggling to find workers to fill vacancies. The solution to this problem may come from an unlikely source: Kim Kardashian West.
Don’t roll your eyes. Kardashian West is smart and I have long been a fan of her as a businesswoman. An entrepreneur since her teens (one of her first jobs was organizing closets for celebrities and selling items on eBay), the reality TV star also runs a multimillion-dollar enterprise with her family that sells cosmetics, fashions and, of course, entertainment to her millions of fans.
Now a law student, Kardashian West has been focusing on prison reform, and just last week, Donald Trump had her standing by his side as he announced new measures to get more prisoners back into the workforce, and on to the payrolls of firms like yours and mine who are desperate for good people.
“When former inmates come home, the single most important action we can take is to help them find a really, really good job, where they love the job, they want to go there, and they’re making a lot of money,” the president said at a press conference.
The Ready to Work initiatives he announced, according to a White House press release, will provide funding and support by the federal government to connect employers directly with former prisoners, support fidelity bonds that will underwrite companies that hire workers with criminal backgrounds, expand the Pell grant program to better prepare prisoners for the workforce while incarcerated and enable prisoners to apply for some federal jobs. Kardashian West’s contributions – besides using her celebrity to increase public awareness – included the arrangement of a partnership with the ridesharing company Lyft to provide free rides for inmates going to job interviews.
Released prisoners are “an untapped group of employees that a lot of companies overlook”, said Steven Blazer, a recruiter with Surge staffing in Schuylkill county, Pennsylvania, in a Fox News report. “That’s a mistake because these individuals want to work and can be productive on the job.”
Trump’s initiatives only apply to federal prisoners, who make up about 12% of the roughly 1.5 million incarcerated. They are in addition to already existing incentives, such as the work opportunity tax credit, which gives a tax credit to businesses that hire the long-term unemployed, which includes ex-convicts.
Many states have already been rolling out their own job programs for ex-cons. Pennsylvania and others are hosting job fairs for inmates nearing release. Michigan has a “robust” program called Vocational Village, which trains about 400 prisoners at a time, in trades including welding, machine operating and trucking.
In Minnesota, where prison reform is a top priority for both the state’s governor and first lady, one small business owner – Isabelle Day – has taken it upon herself to hire former convicts at her company, Quality Ingredients – and that number is up to eight people or 15% of her workforce. According to a report in the Star Tribune, Day is “delighted with their work ethic, attendance record and what they bring to her company”. She has expanded her retirement plans and is now providing short-term interest-free loans as well.
“There’s such a need for skilled labor in particular,” Mark Holden, senior vice-president of the anti-poverty group Stand Together, told NPR. “That stigma’s wearing off … When employers see … there’s people coming out of prison who have those skills, they’re going to be willing to take a chance.”
I’m not suggesting that you should start watching Keeping Up With the Kardashians anytime soon (although you may be surprised at how addictive it can be). But if you’re looking to fill open jobs you might want to think of Kardashian West and reach out to your local correctional facility. You might be surprised at what you find there as well.