Aug 20, 2021 - 12:00pm

How Employers Can Build Career Pathways for Ex-Offenders


Senior Editor, Digital Content

Equality of Opportunity In Action: The Power of a Second Chance

With the workforce shortage becoming more dire, employers must look to underutilized pools of talent to find workers.

Formerly incarcerated individuals can be a source. What’s the business case for giving these people a second chance, and how do employers tap into this resource?

At a U.S. Chamber Equality of Opportunity Initiative event, experts from government, business, and the nonprofit sector discussed these questions. They offered insights and tangible steps employers are taking to leverage the power of second chance hiring and helping ex-offenders reenter the workforce.

An Underutilized Resource

As of June, there were more than 10 million job openings in America, and that number continues to escalate. Just since May businesses created 590,000 more jobs, and 3.3 million since the beginning of 2021. Employers across the country and in every industry are looking for workers to keep their doors open and their businesses running.

At the same time 70 million people have an arrest record. Because of this many of them are marginalized and unable to participate fully in our economy. In addition, more than 600,000 people return from prison every year, and they’re disproportionately Black and people of color.

The business case for second chance hiring is strong, a Chamber report finds:

  • U.S. GDP is reduced between $78 billion and $87 billion by excluding formerly incarcerated people.
  • Employers have found that hiring the formerly incarcerated can reduce turnover and improve performance.

“This recovery will require employers to take advantage of labor pools that have been untapped,” explained Chiraag Bains, Special Assistant to the President for Criminal Justice and Guns Policy. “People with convictions have been an underutilized labor pool. A lot of these folks are able to do the job, but they just need the chance.” 

Bains addressed the efforts the federal government is taking to integrate the formerly incarcerated back into the workforce. For example, the Office of Personnel Management will soon issue proposed regulations to “ban the box” and remove criminal history questions from employment applications. Such questions “screens out a lot of qualified formerly incarcerated applicants,” he explained.

For employers there’s the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. It “allows employers to receive a credit of up to $2400 to hire someone within a year of their felony conviction or release from incarceration for a felony,” Bains said. In FY2020 it supported the hiring of 69,000 people. The Biden administration wants to help more employers take advantage of this.

How Employers Can Get Started?

If an employer wants to start giving second chances to the formerly incarcerated where should they begin?

“It starts with leadership buy-in,” said Erin Fletcher, Director of the People Operations Support Team at Walmart. “That tone from the top helps remove roadblocks.”

Next, it’s developing pilot programs by partnering with community-based nonprofits. Fletcher explained it’s about working with organizations to help with interview preparation, job application support, and skill building for job candidates to build a talent pipeline.

Kevin Gay runs one of these organizations. As CEO of Operation New Hope he asks, “We have to think of how our employers are thinking. What do they need?”

Operation New Hope runs a four-week “basic training” for the formerly incarcerated that focuses on key employability skills like emotional maturity and job coaching.

“Employers look at us as a social human resource department, vetting, preparing, and walking through the first year of our clients,” Gay said.

How JPMorgan Chase Developed Its Program

For JPMorgan Chase, developing its second chance hiring program began with “evaluating our own policies and practices,” Monique Baptiste, Head of Jobs & Skills for Global Philanthropy, explained.

Then in 2019, the company launched a community-based pilot, “where we established partnerships with community organizations who serve as our talent pipeline source and could work with people with criminal histories directly to navigate through our process,” Baptiste said. “Our recruiters work closely with those organizations.”

She offered tips for other employers wanting to get started:

  • “We tapped into SHRM’s Getting Talent Back to Work tool kit…. That really helped us think through how we could structure our pipelines and HR efforts.”
  • Connect with community organizations. “Find those individuals, find those organizations to build relationships and co-design the model that’s responsive to that community so you can get the best outcomes.”

Employers need more workers, and the formerly incarcerated is an untapped pool. Working with the private sector the government can support employment opportunities for these individuals, offering them the chance to personally thrive, support their families and communities, and take part in the American Dream.

For more solutions to help employers fill jobs, America Works is a nationwide activation of business and government to swiftly address America’s deepening worker shortage crisis. The U.S. Chamber and U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation have programs for your HR department to fill open jobs, the latest research on the economic impact of the worker shortage, and policy recommendations urging elected officials to take action at uschamber.com/work.

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About the Author

About the Author

Sean Hackbarth
Senior Editor, Digital Content

Sean writes about public policies affecting businesses including energy, health care, and regulations. When not battling those making it harder for free enterprise to succeed, he raves about all things Wisconsin (his home state) and religiously follows the Green Bay Packers.