By Matt Mooney, Vice President
Within the span of 10 days, several major news outlets (the Wall Street Journal, Chicago Tribune, and Financial Times) published stories about employers who are applying a particular innovation to fill open positions in a tight labor market. They highlight an increasingly common practice that only a few years ago was a red line for HR and hiring managers: accepting candidates with criminal records, felony convictions, and time spent incarcerated.
While the personal stories in the Wall Street Journal article of Gina, Rayshon, and Michael are compelling in their own right – battling social barriers and stigmas on the path to personal redemption – they also shine a bright light on the hard business case of dollars and cents.
That case is straightforward: worker shortages in today’s labor market cost businesses money, mostly in the form of lost revenue. Vacancies in critical front-line roles such as machine operators and warehouse pickers result in fewer products made, more unfilled orders, and would-be customers shopping somewhere else.
This is not theoretical macroeconomics, it is everyday microreality. The common refrain I regularly hear from employer executives on their front-line roles is, “I just need someone who is a hard worker and will show up to work.” These roles are well-suited to highly motivated individuals that just want an opportunity.
Historically, people with criminal records have been denied that chance. Even those who are motivated to make a better life for themselves regularly find closed doors to key essentials like employment and housing, unable to escape their past. But when they do find employers willing to take a chance on them, as Richard Palmer of Nehemiah Manufacturing notes in the WSJ article, they frequently become “our most loyal people.”
If any of this shift toward hiring more people with criminal backgrounds sounds trivial, it isn’t. Only a few years ago, our programs at Cincinnati Works accepted few people with these kinds of records into our job readiness and support programs because so many employers instantly disqualified any applicant with a felony.
That is changing rapidly. Driven by tight competition for workers and successful examples of Nehemiah, JBM Packaging, and other employers, we see in Cincinnati an emerging groundswell of support for job applicants with criminal records. Today, we estimate that more than half of our Members at Cincinnati Works have some type of criminal record, many of whom we are placing and supporting into meaningful employment.
The Beacon of Hope Business Alliance, referenced in the postscript of the WSJ article, is a program Cincinnati Works inherited from Nehemiah this past August with the goal of expanding these hiring practices among other businesses. We educate employers about the business case and, more importantly, help them understand how to implement such a program successfully (which is not straightforward).
In just over 3 years, this alliance has drawn the support of 80 businesses in Greater Cincinnati. This includes retail giant Kroger and its New Beginnings pilot program, which to date has hired more than 40 associates with criminal records and boasts a 93% retention rate.
Cincinnati Works and Beacon of Hope are just getting started. We want to seize this moment, with employers in great need of talent and the success stories becoming more visible, to tip the scales on second-chance hiring and create a win-win-win scenario for businesses, individuals, and our community.
Our goal is to make the Cincinnati community a place where hiring people with criminal backgrounds doesn’t require a business case, but is business as usual.