Despite a record labor shortage, previously incarcerated and justice impacted individuals struggle to find work.
It doesn’t matter the profession or industry, searching for a new job can often be a daunting and difficult task. Navigating the job market can be especially challenging for people who are returning to the workforce after incarceration or justice involvement.
The United States has the world’s largest prison population and the highest incarceration rate, and at least 95% of that population are eventually released back into society. While they are free to rejoin the workforce, many previously incarcerated citizens are still struggling to find work. In 2018, the Prison Policy Initiative found that 27 percent of formerly incarcerated people are unemployed. That mark ranks higher than the U.S. unemployment rate during any period, including the Great Depression.
Many of the justice impacted people who are able to find jobs discover new obstacles once they are employed. They find that their jobs offer a lack of stability or economic mobility, constraints that make it difficult to survive.
The country’s current labor shortage should mean there are plentiful job opportunities for previously incarcerated people. However, returning citizens face major challenges to securing employment, and if they do, there’s no guarantee that the jobs can ensure the stability they need to function, let alone thrive, in society.
It’s clear more can and should be done to help this vulnerable population find and sustain employment after their release. Let's uncover the challenges this population faces on the path to employment and what actions can be taken to address these issues.
Understanding the current state of employment for previously incarcerated people
A recent report released by the Bureau of Justice Statistics indicates that just 33 percent of more than 50,000 people released from federal prisons in 2010 found employment in the four years immediately following their release. Even more staggering is that at no point has more than 40 percent of the group been employed. Those who were employed still struggled to get by; the study found that formerly incarcerated people averaged 3.4 jobs over the course of the four-year study period—a clear indicator that the jobs lacked security.
Among the challenges formerly incarcerated workers face is less pay, particularly in the immediate aftermath of their release.
During their first year of release, formerly incarcerated people earn 53 percent of the median U.S. worker’s salary. That discrepancy doesn’t stop after 12 months, though, formerly incarcerated workers made less than 84 cents for every dollar of the median U.S. wage during their first four years of seeking post-release employment.
Common industries and union membership
The industries that employ the most formerly incarcerated people are waste management services, construction and food services. Although many construction and manufacturing jobs used to pay wages that were enough for people to support a family and build wealth, those jobs are now less likely to help the majority of formerly incarcerated people improve the financial hardships—oftentimes poverty—that they face after being released from prison.
Between 2000 and 2019, Union membership declined significantly in the construction and manufacturing industries. During the same two decades, the number of people on parole increased by more than 150,000 and the number of citizens with felony convictions nearly doubled, from 13.2 million to approximately 24 million.
Some view the contrasting trends as direct exploitation of formerly incarcerated people. The New York Times reported on instances of previously-convicted New York workers being shuttled into non-union construction jobs that offer scarce or no benefits.
The obstacles to livable-wage employment continue to increase despite a record number of job openings in the U.S. What can be done to open more opportunities for previously incarcerated people?
Fair chance hiring to fill ongoing labor shortages, now and in the future
American employers are currently facing a hiring crisis. According to the Bureau of Labor, there were 11.2 million job vacancies in the U.S., and 6.3 million Americans registered as unemployed in January 2022.
With the number of job vacancies outnumbering the number of unemployed by nearly five million, America’s incarceration population—both those who have been released and those currently serving—offer an untapped source of labor suitable for numerous industries.
Fair chance hiring
A willingness from companies to employ fair chance hiring practices would allow more previously incarcerated people to gain meaningful employment, which would not only contribute to building a stronger national and global economy but also help strengthen the individual communities in which they reside.
Whether companies are struggling to fill job vacancies or not, it’s important to consider hiring practices and employee engagement as valuable tools to positively impact a company’s bottom line. Perhaps even more important than improving a company’s bottom line is maintaining that success. Adjusting hiring practices—including rewriting job ads, reworking hiring processes, and reimagining recruiting—could allow for more formerly incarcerated employees to gain work and help replenish the nation’s aging workforce.
What the future holds
Many previously incarcerated people aren’t struggling to find work because jobs aren’t available. Instead, their challenges stem from employer attitudes toward previously incarcerated people.
Employers might be concerned about previously incarcerated employees experiencing issues related to workplace disruption, quality of work or retention, though those concerns often aren’t based on reality.
Author Jeffery Korzenik tackled the notion in his recent book Untapped Talent and discovered that many previously incarcerated employees perform as well and often better than traditional hires if they are provided the proper support from supervisors or employers. Furthermore, recent Checkr research found that four in five U.S. workers want employers to hire people with conviction histories.
New pathways to career success
Some countries, such as Australia, incorporate apprenticeships as an effective way to transition formerly incarcerated people into good jobs. Apprenticeship opportunities provide workers with education, skills, and paid work that can offer vulnerable employees with structure, mentorship and a reputable title they can use to continue to grow and advance their career, whether in the same industry or otherwise.
For more information on scaling access to economic opportunity for the justice involved population, find our interview with Dr. Annelies Goger at the Brookings Institution.
The best path to improve the ongoing labor crises that are sweeping the nation—both for employers and previously incarcerated individuals who struggle to land stable work situations—is for companies to practice fair chance hiring by expanding their talent pools and adjusting their hiring criteria to open more doors and create new opportunities. Previously incarcerated workers have proven capable of upskilling or reskilling to thrive in various industries if given the opportunity, so it’s vital that companies support a hiring model that embraces multiple pathways to career success, not only through a traditional academic route.
Our country’s labor shortage isn’t going to be solved without the help of available and willing workers, and there is no larger pool of candidates who fit that bill than people who were previously incarcerated. They have a willingness and desire to work and improve their lives, but the commitment doesn’t start and end with them alone. It’s time for employers to do their part, and not only provide job opportunities to this vulnerable population but also offer support once they are hired.
Whether employees have previously been incarcerated or not, they all need employers to grant them an opportunity to succeed. It’s time for those opportunities to be given, so our nation’s workforce and local communities can begin to prosper.
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What can be done to open more opportunities for previously incarcerated people?