Worker shortages and diversity hiring. Two top-of-mind challenges for contingent workforce managers as well as those seeking traditional employees. What if there was a solution that addresses both concerns? There is, but it requires a change of mindset.

Second-chance hiring, or hiring those with criminal records, presents an opportunity to tap into an often-overlooked or dismissed talent pool. Nearly 70 million Americans — or one in three adults — has a criminal record, according to the Second Chance Business Coalition, a cross-sector group of large employers committed to expanding hiring and providing advancement opportunities within their companies for people with criminal records. Additionally, one-third of Black men have a criminal record compared to 8% of the US adult population.

That’s a big pool of potential workers that includes a lot of diversity hires — and they are largely unemployed.

Research shows that nearly nine in 10 employers require applicants to undergo a background check, and a criminal record can reduce the chances of a second interview by 50%, according to SCBC. As a result of this and other challenges, the 27% unemployment rate among formerly incarcerated people in the US, even before the Covid-19 pandemic, was higher than at any other point in US history, including during the Great Depression.

Loyal and Productive Employees

Additional research released in May by the Society for Human Resource Management, the SHRM Foundation and the Charles Koch Institute found 85% of HR professionals and 81% of business leaders believe workers with criminal records perform just as well or better in their jobs compared to workers without criminal records, and 81% of HR professionals say the quality of hire for those with criminal records is about the same or better — an increase of 14 percentage points from 2018, the last time the survey was taken.

The 2021 Getting Talent Back to Work Report is based on surveys of more than 3,400 HR professionals, managers, executives and individual contributors conducted in February and March.

“We know when people with criminal records are excluded from the workforce, a large, willing, trainable talent source goes to waste,” said SHRM President and CEO Johnny C. Taylor, Jr. “Businesses can’t afford to ignore this key talent pool — who, in fact, make hardworking and loyal employees.”

Where Are They?

“The bottom line is we’ve got the people,” says Richard Bronson, founder and CEO of 70 Million Jobs, which operates a job board as well as a traditional staffing firm for formerly incarcerated people. “The unemployment rate of this population is still probably five times what it is for the greater population of the country, which is to say there is lots and lots of people who are ready, willing and able to start working. And we have access to them nationally, on-demand and at scale.”

Bronson launched 70 Million Jobs in 2017 after spending two years in a federal prison. The company participated in the program at startup incubator and investment firm Y Combinator, and also partnered with Los Angeles to help with the city’s unemployment and recidivism problem. It initially launched as a job board exclusively focused on formerly incarcerated people; it then added a second business, a traditional staffing operation also focused on the formerly incarcerated.

“When we did that our business really exploded because for the first time, we were able to fully screen candidates to ensure that their backgrounds fit comfortably within the hiring parameters of our employer clients,” Bronson says.

70 Million Jobs now counts 11 million job seekers in its community and an internal team of 15; it works with some of the largest companies and places thousands of people a year nationwide.

Despite the success of the for-profit 70 Million Jobs, most second-chance hiring entities remain smaller, locally based nonprofit programs.

The US Department of Labor on June 21 announced more than $85.5 million in grants to assist individuals now or once involved in the criminal justice system to secure employment in their communities. The 28 grants have been awarded to organizations in 17 states and Washington, DC, and are the second round of grants under the Reentry Employment Opportunities program; in July 2020, the department awarded more than $90 million in grants.

Changing the Mindset

Employment correlates directly with recidivism for those with criminal backgrounds, according to Bronson. If someone doesn’t get a job, it is highly likely they will break the law again. But if they do get a job, they almost never get in trouble again. “It’s a silver bullet,” he says.

But there is still a long way to go.

“By encouraging employers to recruit, hire and give workers with a criminal background a chance, we can help close the skills gap and break the cycle of recidivism, positively impacting families, communities and businesses across the country — not just now, but for generations to come,” says SHRM’s Taylor.

And attitudes could be changing. HR professionals surveyed for the 2021 Getting Talent Back to Work Report expressed a much greater willingness to hire individuals with criminal records compared to three years ago: 53% of HR professionals surveyed said they would be willing to hire individuals with criminal records, compared with 37% in 2018. Only 12% in 2021 said they would be unwilling to do so.

“Second-chance hiring is a terrific solution that the smartest companies already know about, and the ones that don’t know about it are behind the curve and need to get up to speed quick because it’s a huge, great resource,” Bronson says.

Look for part two in next week’s issue of CWS 3.0, which will address what others are doing to move the needle and tap into the second-chance talent source.