This article was written by checkr.org executive director, ken oliver, and was originally published on linkedin.
There are many obstacles on the path to employment following justice-involvement*. From structural inequalities rooted in both race and class (read: being black or brown and poor), to the more than 48,000 legal barriers that exist preventing justice-involved people from accessing gainful employment, dignified housing, occupational licensing and other essential services needed to survive in a capitalist economy. Factor in technology and skill gaps and it’s no mystery that 45 percent of the more than 600,000 men and women released from prison each year remain unemployed for one full year after returning to the community. The remaining 55% fare little better with median reported earnings just over $10,000 during the same time frame.
One obstacle to livable wage employment for the 70 plus million Americans that have a criminal record we rarely consider, is the disparate lack of social capital, or existence of personal and professional networks to leverage in securing employment. In the professional context, social capital is simply a network of relationships that has the potential to create and oftentimes facilitates career growth and opportunity.
We all know that social capital is extremely powerful. Many of us are here on this very platform [LinkedIn] forming or building relationships with others in an effort to leverage business or career opportunities—and with good reason. When LinkedIn added a referral button to its platform, their data found that applicants were nine times more likely to receive a job offer through a referral than without one. Other estimates suggest that up to 70% of all jobs are not published on publicly available job search sites, highlighting the old adage that it's not what you know, but who you know.
If you are White—or if you’ve never been impacted by the justice system—it’s probable you will develop an advantageous network of professionals throughout your life. Those of us in privileged positions have benefited from people in our lives, usually those who look and act like us, who have similar lived experiences as us, who share advice, write letters of recommendation, or simply put in a “good word” at their place of work on our behalf.
To support the justice-involved population in finding livable wage employment and to break cycles of recidivism, we must acknowledge the role of social capital in accessing career advancement and economic mobility, and the disparate impact on justice-involved people who have not been provided the privilege or opportunity to access it.
Who gets to build social capital?
Networks begin to form on college or university campuses, sometimes even earlier. One report found that young adults from the top socioeconomic quartile report nearly double the number of nonfamilial adults in their lives as their peers from the bottom quartile.
The innate tendency to refer, hire, and promote people who look like us and with whom we share similar backgrounds and experiences ultimately excludes individuals who don’t have the same access to social capital. This very human tendency is normal, but it increases economic exclusion and squanders our chances of inclusion in the workplace.
To understand who gets to build social capital, consider that if your parents have a bachelor’s degree, you are far more likely to know individuals working as CEOs, lawyers, and other high-paying jobs. And according to LinkedIn data, a LinkedIn member in a zip code with a median income over $100K is nearly 3x more likely to have a stronger network than a member in a lower-income zip code.
Exclusion from social networks and support systems prevents people in poor communities from achieving upward mobility. And poverty is the indelible driver of recidivism and mass incarceration, which we know disproportionately impacts Black and Brown communities.
Black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons across the country at nearly five times the rate of White Americans, and Latinx Americans are 1.3 times as likely to be incarcerated than non-Latinx White Americans. The impact of the intersection of race, socioeconomic status, and justice-involvement on employment is highlighted in the finding that 17% of White Americans with a criminal record were more likely to get a callback from an employer, compared to 5% of Black Americans with a record. Even White Americans with a record get called back more (17%) than Black Americans without a record (14%). And while unemployment for Black women is around 5%, unemployment for formerly-incarcerated Black women is at 43.6%.
Understanding the power social ties have in securing job placement, how does a justice-involved person begin the life-long process to build social capital to increase mobility and access to opportunity?
Building social capital in the workplace after justice-involvement
Truly meaningful change requires comprehensive and holistic strategies. Luckily, there are people working to change the system, to recover the losses of injustice.
One organization that supports underserved and justice-involved communities, Climb Hire, understands the importance of social bonds and networks in securing meaningful employment. The organization works on a two-pronged approach, helping participants to both learn in-demand skills in the high-paying technology sector, while teaching participants how to build a strong professional network.
Nitzan Pelman, CEO and founder of Climb Hire said, “My hypothesis was that there is a lot of talent who are overlooked and hidden. If we could find these gritty, motivated, aptitude-filled people, we could help them build a network and social capital alongside of in demand skills.” She continued, “I had the chance to design Climb Hire with the idea that relationships and networks were equally as important as the in demand skills.”
Climb Hire’s emphasis on developing the networking and relationship-building skills needed for a career is a beacon of light in the quest to lead justice-involved people to economic mobility. In fact, 80% of Climb Hire graduates have secured middle class jobs and have doubled or tripled their income—from 24k to 66k on average.
Expanding ways for the justice-involved to develop networking skills, grow connections, and secure placement in livable wage careers is critical to creating a fairer future of work. The success of organizations like Climb Hire needs to be celebrated, but also elevated and adopted by employers on a larger scale.
Scaling the solution
According to a recent Brookings study on the factors associated with higher quality jobs among 29-year-olds from underserved backgrounds, internships and mentoring were critical to building pathways to economic security.
Employers have a responsibility to open their candidate pools to the justice-involved population. By offering various avenues into their organizations, whether by an apprenticeship or internship program, they can harness untapped talent and bolster inclusion. Hiring fair opportunity talent gives someone with justice-involvement the necessary runway to forge connections with the people who will be instrumental in their ability to secure high-paying jobs.
When more diverse individuals are given the chance to showcase their talents, their grit, and their aptitudes, a larger number of justice-involved individuals can enter the workforce and exit economic stagnation. Mentorship and representation in the workplace are potent remedies in recovering lost opportunities to build social capital.
Successful innovation in business is incumbent on a true diversity of perspectives. Inclusion of individuals with different lived experiences than our own makes our organizations richer; more fertile in thought, more abundant in creativity, and more astute in our ability to solve pressing business problems.
Every individual who is willing and able to work deserves a fair opportunity to access livable wage employment and economic mobility. And when employers and their hiring managers are inclusive of the justice-involved population, it only enriches company culture, preparing forward-thinking companies for the future of work.
In order to build a fairer future of work, we must shift away from the myopic talent sourcing strategies we’ve relied upon in the past and open up employment opportunities to all.
* Justice-involvement means that a person has either an arrest or conviction on their record.