It's hard to find work after prison
For the nearly 1-in-3 Americans with criminal records, looking for work can feel doubly challenging. Not only do they have to carry the stigma of having a record, but especially for those who have spent time in prison it can disrupt their pursuit of higher education, acquiring useful job skills and building a solid social or professional network.
According to a 2021 report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, out of a sample of over 50,000 people released from federal prisons in 2010, about a third did not find employment in their first four years out of prison. Even those who did held an average of 3.4 jobs during the four-year time frame, suggesting these positions may have lacked upward mobility or security.
Workers with criminal records are typically limited to sectors like construction, manufacturing, food services and retail, as well as temporary work. And for racialized workers, the employment landscape can be even more limited, with research showing that compared to Black and Hispanic people, white people with criminal records are significantly more likely to secure jobs and earn higher wages post-prison — even when white respondents showed high rates of drug addiction and longer prison times.
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Employers can benefit from hiring those with criminal records
The U.S. has been contending with a labor shortage for years, and with more Americans aging into retirement, employers will need to get creative to fill those roles.
Advocates argue those with criminal records present a golden employment opportunity. Some studies show that workers with criminal records tend to be more engaged at work and loyal to their employers for offering them a second chance — which can translate into less risk of turnover or lost productivity.
And over 80% of HR professionals and business leaders who hired individuals with criminal records say workers with criminal records perform just as well — or even better — than other employees, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) Foundation.
“You don't want to miss out on that talent; you don't want to miss out on all the people who could make your company great,” Kelley said. “When you have fair chance hiring, I think that you're giving people who deserve a second chance that chance."
More employers are opening up doors to the formerly incarcerated
For Kelley, eventually getting a second chance made the difference between oscillating between minimum wage jobs for several years after his charge to taking on a six-figure position at Dropbox.
He’s since moved on to work as a technical coach at Slack’s Next Chapter, an engineering apprenticeship program for formerly incarcerated individuals — where he also apprenticed back in 2020. Next Chapter’s network of hiring partners also includes other tech companies, like Dropbox, Zoom and PayPal.
And JPMorgan Chase’s Second Chance Business Coalition — which provides employers with resources to hire and promote people with criminal records — is partnered with companies like Bank of America, American Airlines and Walmart.
Around two-thirds of HR professionals indicated their organization hired individuals with a criminal record in 2021, according to the SHRM. And over half said they’d be willing to hire individuals with criminal records, compared to just over a third who said the same in 2018.
“I do think that there's going to be a wider coalition of forward-thinking CEOs who recognize that when their companies are facing an employment crisis … that there are people in communities who are excited to get to work and are looking for employers that are excited to have them,” Kimberly McGlonn told Moneywise. McGlonn is the CEO and founder of manufacturing start-up Grant Blvd, which produces sustainably sourced fashion and provides living wage jobs for women, including the formerly incarcerated.
At Grant Blvd, she’s launching a workforce development program to teach justice-impacted workers how to sew, with the aim of employing most of them after the program ends. The start-up is also partnering with local nonprofits to provide participants with support in their transition from incarceration.
“I think that the future of our economy rests essentially in our ability to make sure that our citizens are able to get access to that living wage work,” McGlonn said.
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Employers need to provide the right tools and care
But it’s not just enough to provide access. McGlonn says that employers need to be mindful that these workers may be dealing with other issues, like addiction, the trauma of having been incarcerated and the challenges of reunification with family.
Kelley, for example, ended up quitting Dropbox after two years because he was struggling with the pressures of the role.
“It was an environment where you had to go your hardest, you had to be on your A-game, you had to pull your weight,” he recounted. “I felt like I wasn't pulling my weight.”
Kelley says it would have helped to have someone to talk to when he was making the transition, explaining that going from a prison setting to a professional environment is a massive shift.
Now at Next Chapter, he mentors apprentices going through the same training he did and makes sure they’re getting the support they need to be successful at their jobs.
“They’re coming from a background where there’s a lack of support — and when they come out [of prison], there’s still a lack of support,” Kelley said.
“And so to have an employer that's looking out for you, supporting you in the areas that you need, that goes a long way in your growth in a company, and just as a person.”
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