A woman interviews a previous felon for a job

Why Employers Should Actively Recruit Felons

Business owners across the country are struggling to fill vacancies. The Federal Reserve’s eight beige books of 2018 all make repeated mention of hiring difficulties, and the latest NFIB survey shows that record numbers of small business owners say finding qualified candidates is their biggest business challenge.

In that environment, many employers are expanding their searches and appealing to non-traditional candidates. For example, we have seen a huge increase at ZipRecruiter in the number of job postings that explicitly invite retirees to apply. There about 1,000 “retiree-friendly” jobs on ZipRecruiter at any one time.  

Most employers are still not actively recruiting felons, however. There are only about 20 “felon-friendly” jobs in our marketplace at a time, even though more than 700,000 Americans are released from prisons each year—a huge potential labor pool.

Education as the Key to Reintegration

Employers have their reasons for being wary, of course. It is difficult for employers to know who will reintegrate successfully into society and who will recidivate, and employers know that their brands and reputations depend on the professionalism and trustworthiness of their staff. The stigma of incarceration lasts long after people have done their time and can make it difficult for ex-offenders to land a job.

Although most employers aren’t specifically targeting ex-offenders, many are taking a “don’t ask, don’t tell” approach. Tight labor market conditions are pushing many to relax or eliminate their background check and drug testing requirements, and to use other methods—like temporary contracts—to screen workers.

Another reason it is difficult for ex-offenders to land a job is that many have very little education or training—68% of inmates in state prisons lack a high school diploma, according to research by the RAND Corporation.

Encouragingly, 84% of state correctional institutions offer some type of education or training. Now, a new criminal justice reform bill called the First Step Act, which was passed last month with overwhelming bipartisan support will increase spending on correctional education.

According to 37 years of research, correctional education programs reduce recidivism by 28%. Ex-offenders who participate in any educational program increase their odds of getting a job by 13%, and those who specifically participate in vocational training programs increase their odds of getting a job by 28%. As a result, $1 spent on correctional education programs leads to $5 saved from reduced re-incarceration rates.

Somewhat tragically, states cut their prison-based education programs in response to budget difficulties during the Great Recession, leaving many ex-offenders woefully unprepared to make the most of the ensuing economic recovery.

Large Organizations Leading the Way

Nevertheless, many employers—like Delta Air Lines, Amazon’s Whole Foods chain, and Starbucks—are expanding their hiring of ex-cons. Greyston Bakery representatives say they have had tremendous success with their felon hires and say they believe that companies would be better off investing less in screening out workers and more in training and supporting them to capitalize on second chances.

Some companies have gone so far as to make hiring ex-offenders a central part of their mission. Richard Branson and his company, Virgin Group, vocally encourage companies to recruit people with convictions. Ally and Scott Svenson, the owners of MOD Pizza, have also become poster children for the cause. A very moving article about their eight-year experience with hiring felons recently went mega-viral.

The Many Benefits of Hiring Ex-Offenders

A report commissioned by the Society of Human Resources Management found that 82 percent of executives say their ex-offender hires have been at least as successful as their average hire.

Notably, by hiring ex-offenders, employers can get equally successful workers at a reduced cost.

The federal government offers a tax incentive called the Work Opportunity Tax Credit for employers who hire and retain ex-felons. (The credit is also available to employers who hire veterans, people with disabilities, and other target groups with barriers to employment.) If an employee works at least 120 hours per year, a company can claim a 25% tax credit off their first year’s wages, and 40% if he or she works 400 hours. Some state governments provide additional incentives.  

As businesses struggle to fill vacancies, and as correctional education and training programs expand and improve, hiring managers may find it worth their while to recruit felons more actively—for example, by adding felon-friendly language to job postings. The immediate benefits will flow directly to the business itself, in the form of access to a largely untapped pool of talent, federal tax credits, and state incentives.

Felons themselves will benefit from a second chance. But the benefits will be felt much more widely too, in the form of reduced unemployment, reduced poverty, reduced reliance on welfare, and reduced recidivism. 

Written by

Julia Pollak is Chief Economist at ZipRecruiter. She leads ZipRecruiter's economic research team, which provides insights and analysis on current labor market trends and the future of work.

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