By Madeline Janis
This column originally appeared in Forbes
This week, Congress passed the First Step Act, the broadest criminal justice reform bill in decades, with wide bipartisan support. The bill, if enacted, will reduce sentences and introduce opportunities for early release for people serving time in federal prisons, reforms that will impact some 181,000 people.
While many analysts consider the First Step Act to be just that — a first step — the bill may also contain important lessons for manufacturers looking to solve the sector’s ongoing recruitment crisis. By including funding for vocational training programs for people incarcerated in federal prisons, the First Step Act acknowledges that the U.S. can no longer afford to consign people with criminal records to permanent poverty.
What do employers stand to gain? It’s no secret that American manufacturers have a recruitment crisis. Despite fears about the impact of automation and advanced technology on the labor market, manufacturing job openings have skyrocketed in 2018.
Jobs in manufacturing are projected to continue their double-digit growth rate and are fast approaching the historic high reached in 2001. Despite this growth, a recent report estimates that a shortage of skilled workers — the so-called “skills gap” — may leave 2.4 million manufacturing jobs unfilled over the next decade. The result? A potential $2.5 billion hit to the U.S. economy.
As businesses scramble to fill openings and industry leaders prepare for the “future of work,” one answer to this recruitment crisis lies in the future of a particular group of workers: those re-entering the workforce after serving time for a past mistake.
In the U.S., nearly one in three working adults — over 77 million people — have some type of criminal record, almost as many as hold college degrees. The U.S. currently incarcerates 2.2 million people, with an additional 4.7 people on probation or parole. These millions of people will all have some sort of record — the kind that shows up on a simple background check — attached to their name.
For the 600,000 people returning home from prisons and jails each year, and for anyone who has had contact with the justice system, having a record is a major obstacle in finding a good job like the ones found in the manufacturing sector.
Studies have consistently proven that securing and maintaining a stable, family-sustaining job is crucial for formerly incarcerated individuals reintegrating into their communities. Access to employment — especially right after release from incarceration — is also proven to reduce recidivism rates.
Recent estimates show that formerly incarcerated people ages 25-44 are unemployed at a rate of around 27.3%, which is five times higher than the 5.2% unemployment rate for their peers in the general public, and higher than the total U.S. employment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
The data shows that people from communities of color are disproportionately impacted both by incarceration and the barriers to employment associated with having a criminal record. For women, Black, or Latinx people, having a record negatively affects employment opportunities at even higher rates.
When formerly incarcerated people do find jobs, it is often on an occasional, part-time or informal basis in a low-wage sector, which puts many workers with records below the poverty line.
Obstacles facing people returning to the workforce create a vicious cycle of incarceration and poverty, one with far-reaching impacts on families, communities, taxpayers, and the economy. Barriers to employment for people with records — such as strict occupational licensing requirements — amounted to a loss of at least 1.7 million workers from the workforce and a cost of at least $78 billion to the U.S. economy.
The Senate’s passing of the First Step Act signals growing bipartisan recognition that dismantling barriers to employment for people with records is crucial to shoring up the American economy. At the state and local levels, where the majority of people are incarcerated, 33 states and 150 cities have passed “ban the box” or “fair chance” legislation. These laws range in scope, with many mandating employers to consider a candidate’s skill-set and qualifications before determining whether a past mistake should factor into the hiring process.
A recent study of “ban the box” legislation produced promising results for workers and employers, concluding that individuals with records have much longer tenure and are less likely to quit their jobs voluntarily than other workers.
But ending employment discrimination is not enough, not for the workers seeking to provide for themselves and their families, nor for the employers seeking to hire these workers.
Innovative partnerships have sprung up to provide training and support for workers with a history in the justice system. In California, the Anti-Recidivism Coalition works in partnership with the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, the California Labor Federation, and other partners to run the Second Chance Union Training Program.
The program is an innovative training program for people needing a second chance that includes technical education, soft skills development, and supportive services. Since its launch in 2016, ARC has enrolled 128 program participants. Graduates of the program have been placed in apprenticeships as electricians, laborers, carpenters, and painters.
The Second Chance Union Training Program is not alone. Tech firms, labor unions and even artists like John Legend recognize the value of building regional partnerships with social services to address human resources issues while creating pathways to good jobs for workers with records.
With the debate over the manufacturing “skills gap” unlikely to slow down soon, employers can’t afford to overlook the 77 million American workers with records. The data — and now the law — is clear: hiring them is good for communities, and for the economy.