(This column originally appeared in the Philadelphia Inquirer)
Just about every small business owner I know is struggling to find workers in this very tight labor market. But there’s a potentially good solution for this problem: why not hire formerly incarcerated people?
According to the advocacy group Prison Policy Initiative, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of over 27% — higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
“With the right resources, and the right attitude, companies can hire great people who were formerly incarcerated,” said Ife Bobb a program manager at the Center for Employment Opportunities which provides employment services exclusively to individuals who have recently returned home from incarceration and operates in 31 cities across 12 states, including Philadelphia. “We’ve successfully helped countless employers hire workers that have benefited their organizations and changed lives.”
For employers considering hiring formerly incarcerated workers, there are plenty of state and local resources available. These range from the Philadelphia Office of Re-Entry Partnerships and Pennsylvania Re-Entry Council to the NJ Reentry Corporation. There are also nonprofit groups like the Center for Employment Opportunities and Ride To Work LLC, which not only matches employers to formerly incarcerated workers but also provides transportation for those workers to get to their jobs and post-hiring training and support to help both workers and their employers acclimate.
“Employers should always partner with an organization,” said Tim Styer, the president and CEO of Ride To Work. “The good ones will help screen, provide training and offer other services to make the hiring process easier. This is what we — and groups like us — do. We have the experience.”
Harry Michel, who owns and operates WashLB, a “location-based” car care service headquartered in Center City, has employed “more than a hundred” formerly incarcerated workers. He also encouraged employers to use support organizations and to also commit the resources needed to ensure that these workers can transition to not only their jobs, but to society.
“People coming out of prison will need extra attention,” he said. “Employers must be prepared to spend time with them. They should proactively be talking to them about personal decisions, life decisions, struggles that they’re going through, and how to manage those things.”
The biggest thing these workers need is “reassurance and just giving confidence,” Michel said.
Some employers may worry about the skill levels of workers coming out of the prison system, a concern that data supports. According to a national assessment of adult literacy, 70% of all incarcerated adults cannot read at a fourth-grade level.
But Michel says there are plenty of resources available — like those listed on the PA Career Link — to help evaluate skills and aptitude levels. And groups like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Manufacturing Alliance can provide state-funded training to get these new workers up to speed. The federal government also provides assistance through its Work Opportunity Tax Credit, a generous benefit that reduces the taxes for an employer who hires the formerly incarcerated.
Surprisingly, Styer said that the “hard skills” of doing a job are “fairly easy” to learn. The biggest challenge, in his opinion, are the “soft skills.”
“We find that most folks can be trained how to do the work, but somebody who’s been incarcerated for some time usually finds it harder to be resocialized back into society and learn things like being on time and showing up every day,” he says. “It’s the post-hiring support that’s most important to retaining those workers.”
Both Michel and Styer have found that providing a consistent job routine and setting expectations is an effective way to address these challenges. Putting too much pressure on workers just out of prison is usually not effective.
“The job should be as structured as possible,” said Styer. “Workers coming from this background will do better in environments where things are repetitive and the work is stable.”
Some employers may worry that adding a formerly incarcerated worker may elicit concerns among their existing workers. But that doesn’t have to be the case. Styer advised that employers keep up an ongoing communication with their staff. Michel said most of his formerly incarcerated workers are anxious to return to work if just given the chance and that oftentimes these individuals are “more reliable or responsible” because they have “something more to prove” than most other people.
“The biggest thing employees and their managers can do for these new workers is to make them feel like they are a part of the community and that they are valued,” he said. “A lot of these returning citizens have not been given the opportunity in the past to be treated that way because they’ve made a mistake, and that doesn’t have to be the case in their new job.”
“Everyone deserves a second chance,” Michel said.