How America's labor shortage is changing prospects for applicants with criminal records

The country faces a labor shortage, but criminal records keep some people from joining the workforce. Now, more businesses are opening doors to those applicants, offering hope for more rehabilitation.

Amid the current tight labor market, employers have turned to an often overlooked pool of talent: applicants with criminal records.  

A recent analysis by Indeed Hiring Lab found postings noting fair-chance hiring last month increased 31% from May 2019, making up 2.5% of all job listings.  

"The share of job postings that advertise their fair chance hiring is still a small percentage of all job postings," said Indeed Hiring Lab economist AnnElizabeth Konkel. "But the fact that it has risen since 2019, it's telling me that employers are increasingly looking to to expand the recruiting pool and this group of individuals is one of them." 

Indeed defines fair-chance hiring as “the idea that all qualified candidates should be fairly considered for a job, regardless of their criminal histories.” 

In April, employers posted 11.4 million jobs, according to the the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. But criminal records keep some workers from finding jobs even though they represent a large pool of potential workers.   

More than half of unemployed men in their 30s have been involved with the criminal-justice system, according to a study by the nonprofit research group RAND Corporation, published in February. 

The Indeed analysis showed some employers have been highlighting their fair-chance hiring policies in job descriptions, writing phrases like "applicants with conviction records will not be excluded." 

The report noted that, "among the top fair chance job titles by posting volume were barista, shift leader and store manager." 

Job seekers, meanwhile, appear to recognize that employers are in a tight labor market and more willing to hire people impacted by the criminal justice system, Konkel wrote in her analysis.

Searches for phrases like “felon friendly” and “no background check” grew 117% from May 2019. 

"There's potential additional kind of knock-on effects of this trend,” Konkel said. “There might be a broader societal impact, certainly for these individuals that face these barriers, that today's tight labor market, you know, has some positives for them, hopefully."

Credit:                      Indeed                                             Indeed is the largest job site in the world.

Barriers to employment

Of more than 50,000 people released from federal prisons in 2010, a third found no employment in the four years after their release, according to a 2021 report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics. The report also found:

  • People in the sample who were convicted of drug offenses had higher post-prison employment rates that those convicted of other offenses.
  • A higher percentage of women than men were employed after their release, but they were paid less.
  • People held an average of 3.4 jobs during the four-year study period.

Some convictions may prevent applicants from getting certain jobs – for instance, a person convicted of child abuse can't be employed in child care.

But some employers might exclude potential workers with criminal records because of concerns over "brand awareness or negligent hiring lawsuits" and performance issues in the workplace, said Shawn Bushway, the lead author of the RAND study and a senior policy researcher at the organization.

"There's this sort of general sense that everybody coming out of prison is going to fail," Bushway said. "And that's actually incorrect. Lots of people who get involved with the criminal justice system...including those who go to prison, which is a small subset of those involved in the criminal justice system, don't fail again."

For Veronica Jackson, executive director of PIVOT, a Maryland-based women's-only reentry and workforce development program, hiring a person with a criminal record is a win-win situation for both businesses and individuals involved with the criminal justice system. 

"With returning citizens or people who have a criminal past, you have someone who is looking for a second chance, who is really looking for employment, and then there's a business that's looking to fill a work labor shortage," Jackson said. 

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People with criminal records perform the same or better than individuals without criminal records, according to a 2021 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management. And businesses that hire people with criminal records can help reduce recidivism, as individuals who are employed are less likely to reoffend.

"If I have employment, it is something that helps me to feel like a productive member of society," Jackson said. "I'm able to maintain wages that will help me to provide for myself, provide for my family, provide for my children, and it is something that will help to definitely occupy my time in a structured way." 

Jackson encouraged employers to keep an open mind when considering applicants with a criminal record:

"One thing that I think sometimes a lot of these employees fail to realize is that we all traveled this journey called life. And some of us need a second chance."

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