Jul 15, 2019 - 9:00am

America’s Hidden Workforce


Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Our nation faces a unique challenge. There are currently more jobs available than there are people to fill them. The unemployment rate is at a remarkably low 3.7%, but 7.5 million jobs sit vacant. One of the many ways the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is working to fill that gap is helping formerly incarcerated individuals reenter the workforce and rebuild their lives.

Second chance hiring not only reduces recidivism rates but also helps well-intentioned and hardworking Americans make the most of their talents and abilities. And by tapping into America’s hidden workforce – the more than 600,000 former inmates who return to society each year – it will ensure that our economy is reaching its full potential. 

To that end, we must do more to help the 75% of former inmates who find themselves still looking for jobs a year after being released from prison – often due to stigma. That’s why we are working closely with the Trump administration to promote second chance hiring. Last month, I joined the president at the White House where he announced plans to encourage public- and private-sector employers to give ex-offenders meaningful job opportunities.

Also, the U.S. Chamber Foundation launched America Working Forward: Hidden Workforce, a project exploring employer-led programs that give people who have been or will soon be released from prison training and support as they navigate the job market. This project highlights the human stories behind second chance hiring, including the success of companies that have made this hiring practice core to their business model.    

Take, for example, Dave’s Killer Bread, an organic bakery in Oregon that was founded by an ex-offender and today employs more than 200 formerly incarcerated individuals. Or consider the rapid growth of ConBody, a minimalist fitness gym with “prison-style” workout classes led by ex-convicts. Ask the CEOs of these companies and both will tell you the same thing – they have succeeded not in spite of but because of second chance hiring. 

We introduced our Hidden Workforce project last month at America Working Forward, an event featuring business leaders, nonprofits, and entrepreneurs building pathways for inmates and ex-offenders to join the workforce. There we heard from several advocates for criminal justice reform, including Piper Kerman, whose memoirs about her experience in prison inspired the critically acclaimed Netflix series Orange Is the New Black

We stand with Piper, the president, and employers across the country in supporting efforts to help formerly incarcerated individuals secure good jobs and build fulfilling lives. These men and women have paid their debt to society and have earned a second chance at the American Dream.

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About the Author

About the Author

Thomas J. Donohue
Chief Executive Officer, U.S. Chamber of Commerce

Thomas J. Donohue is chief executive officer of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.