All Qualified Felons Are Encouraged to Apply

Under Arrest, by Chris Yarzab
Under Arrest.  Photo courtesy of Chris Yarzab.

When you think of a prison work force, your mind naturally drifts to chain gangs in striped clothing smashing rocks with pick axes. Well, it may be time to update your perception. Employers in the US are increasingly hiring job applicants who have criminal records.  It’s a sign of a tight labour market where employers are desperate to fill positions.

In a great New York Times article from January 2018, Ben Casselman details the many ways in which people are getting a little more out of the jobs market.  To clarify, workers are getting more out of it.  But employers have to put in extra effort.  The criminal-hiring phenomenon appears in varying degrees depending on the unemployment rate, particularly in places where unemployment is below 4%.

“In Dane County, Wis., where the unemployment rate was just 2 percent in November, demand for workers has grown so intense that manufacturers are taking their recruiting a step further: hiring inmates at full wages to work in factories even while they serve their prison sentences.”

The effects of the low unemployment rate go beyond those with criminal records.

“Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based software company that analyzes job-market data, has found an increase in postings open to people without experience. And unemployment rates have fallen sharply in recent years for people with disabilities or without a high school diploma.” (Emphasis added)

Those who have experienced prolonged bouts of joblessness are also able to make gains.

When governments attempt to design better social programs, they often say the labour market does the heavy lifting.  That is, when those dependent on social supports are suddenly able to work and then they find work, employment does big things for their wellbeing.  A man named Jordan Forseth is showing up at work in a car that he bought with the money he earned while in prison.  He says that this arrangement is giving him a “second chance.”

In the United States, labour force participation fell dramatically over 20 years.  During those two decades a lot of people lost good jobs in the manufacturing sector, or lost jobs in their small-town locale.  They assumed they would never find similar work.  Discouraged workers create the illusion of low unemployment, because they don’t show up in the statistics for “people seeking work”.  But as employers exert more effort to hire those who had been passed-over, there is encouragement, and those workers come back into the market.

It’s a feel-good story, reading about employers who are going out of their way to hire the disenfranchised.  But what does this mean for ordinary employers who have not put in this effort?  Well, they could soon be in a bind, and this could mean you.  The active recruitment of discouraged workers is a social technology, if we were to define technology as a way of organizing production.  If the external environment has created a combination of opportunities and threats that imply that we should adopt a certain technology, then the businesses that adapt first can have a competitive advantage.

It can take a year or longer to adapt to other social technologies such as anti-bullying legislation, the acknowledgement that addiction and mental health are one-in-the-same, and the obligation to terminate super-stars who sexually harass juniors.  These new methods of organizing can be just as disruptive as computer-based technologies such as cloud computing, online delivery of learning tools, and the use of analytics.

One of the most challenging features of this new social technology is that people will need to trust prisoners and ex-convicts in order to work with them comfortably.  Similar to a newfangled device being brought into your workplace, you might worry that the new way of doing things can cause harm.  However, it should be noted that in several jurisdictions, there are human rights rules that prevent an employer for screening-out applicants based on crimes that are irrelevant to the job requirements.  For example, a drunk-driving conviction might be prohibited grounds for a job that does not require any driving.  This means that the social technology may already be in place, as legislation, and it’s just a question of whether you will comply and keep up with the times.

It’s ironic… that in order to screen-out job applicants who have broken society’s rules, an employer would be put-upon to break a different societal rule.  These rules are tucked inside human rights codes alongside rules against discriminating on the basis of race and sex.  And we should know from the advanced class on employment equity, that in order for us to all get along we need to know each other’s stories.  So what was the convict’s story?  Are they so much different from you, as a human?  Perhaps with your strength and wisdom you have an obligation to cultivate trust, rather than use mistrust as an excuse.

In order to stay at the cutting edge, employers need to adapt to one more compelling, externally-imposed change:  rethink your ideas about the less-fortunate.  Because one day they might be helping you.

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