How can we increase opportunities for formerly incarcerated people?

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I’ve been talking about the skills shortage for many years, but now, after Covid, we’re looking at something more: not just a skills shortage, but a labor shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 11.26 million job vacancies in the United States in January 2022, while 6.3 million Americans are registered as unemployed. Vacancies exceed the number of available workers by almost 5 million.

For employers, this is a crisis. But in every crisis, there is an opportunity. I see an opportunity here for employers to reach out to groups that were previously underrepresented in our workforce. I’ve written a lot lately about the inclusion of people with disabilities in the workforce. But another largely untapped source of labor is the prison population, including people who have been incarcerated or are currently residents.

We send a lot of people to prison in this country. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. But most people who go to jail end up being released. And when these people return to the community, they have to find work.

However, this job search can be difficult. According to a recent report by the Prison Policy Initiative, people who were formerly incarcerated have much higher unemployment rates than the general population. It’s not because they’re not watching. Most are very committed to job search.

What holds them back are the attitudes of employers. It is perhaps understandable that employers are concerned about workplace disruptions, quality of work and retention issues if they hire ex-convicts. But these fears are not based on reality. In his recent book Untapped talentJeffery Korzenik says many formerly incarcerated people can, with the right supports, be as good or better employees than traditional hires.

The right supports are essential, as is the right type of work. I recently spoke with a former Kansas resident who thinks getting a job as a laborer is not the right approach. Former Residents need decently paid work in a structured environment, ideally with a team of colleagues working together to achieve company goals.

It’s the kind of environment you get in a recorded learning program.

For example, in Australia, apprenticeships are a popular and very effective way to transition into good jobs. It provides candidates with education, skills and paid work from day one. I believe this model can work exceptionally well for formerly incarcerated people because it meets three vital needs: structure, orientation, and a recognized title.

STRUCTURE

Registered apprenticeship programs are structured around a curriculum created by the employer in consultation with local business and education leaders. An apprentice has a full day of supervised work tasks and classroom learning, progressing to more complex tasks as knowledge and skills are acquired. Apprenticeship programs last for years, not months, so they provide built-in, long-term security.

ORIENTATION

Mentoring is already recognized as essential to the successful reintegration of formerly incarcerated people. The court-sponsored MENTOR program in Philadelphia, for example, pairs young people newly released from prison with volunteer community mentors for 12 months.

Apprenticeships have built-in mentoring. Each apprentice is paired with an experienced employee who not only guides them in concrete job skills, but also teaches them the culture and expectations of the company. Mentors can spot any problems an apprentice is having, on or off the job, and can help resolve them before they become too big to handle.

RECOGNIZED DIPLOMA

Many jobs in the modern labor market require a degree, which those released from prison are unlikely to possess. But those who complete their apprenticeship earn a diploma: a nationally recognized qualification that is transferable into an in-demand profession. Some apprenticeship programs also include college courses leading to an associate degree. Apprentices can build on these credentials, earning additional certificates or more advanced degrees.

I believe that apprenticeship can greatly benefit formerly incarcerated people, helping them reintegrate into work and community life.

But it would be even more useful to start an apprenticeship while still incarcerated.

Some programs like this are already underway. The Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan has a “vocational village,” where inmates learn skills in a structured environment for trades that are in demand in their communities. Participants also live together so they can encourage each other and reinforce positive choices. The employers talk to the inmates of the village before and after their release.

And in February, in the UK, the Johnson Conservative government announced a new policy whereby prisoners in low-risk prisons can access pre-apprenticeship training while incarcerated and apply for apprenticeship positions in various sectors, improving thus their employment prospects upon leaving.

Apprenticeship is an ideal strategy for employers to bring the prison population into the workplace in a structured and guided way that benefits everyone. And now, during a hot job market, is the perfect time to do so.


Nicholas Wyman is the President of the Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation

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