In December, the U.S. unemployment rate remained steady at 5 percent, the lowest in more than seven years. By comparison, the unemployment rate in November for North Carolina was 5.7 percent, while Winston-Salem weighed in at 5.1 percent, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Some might suggest that at the local level we have finally attained full employment following a prolonged period of economic decline, where all eligible people who want to work can find it at prevailing wage rates. But our local employers tell us that is not the case for them, and we hear from current job seekers and those who believe they are underemployed that they have difficulty finding jobs. Clearly there is a disconnect between available jobs and the available workforce, and this gap is affecting our ability to prosper economically.
One group that is having the greatest difficulty finding employment is individuals who have a prior felony conviction. In expanding the pathways to employment for prospective workers in our community, the Chamber has developed new resources for employers who are considering hiring formerly-incarcerated individuals.
Since 2001, the Chamber has encouraged local employers to invest in our community by hiring locally though JobNet, a free online tool for Chamber members and all job seekers that serves as a matchmaker between employers and potential employees. Last month, the Chamber created the Second Chance Initiative, a community resource designed to help employers considering hiring ex-offenders learn more about business incentives such as federal bond insurance and tax credits, and well as guidance on assessing a criminal record.
In addition, through the Second Chance Initiative, those with criminal records can get information about employment and/or training opportunities through local agencies, including Project Reentry, the Northwest Piedmont Workforce Development Board, Project SOAR and Forsyth Jail and Prison Ministries.
The Chamber also has expanded its JobNet database to include positions, not just for experienced workers, but also for seasonal jobs requiring no previous experience or training, as well as internships for students or those seeking entryway into a competitive field.
JobNet connects job candidates with employers seeking to hire qualified individuals to fill available positions, and the Chamber encourages employers to give fair consideration to the formerly incarcerated for appropriate positions. From September 2014 to September 2015, 788 formerly incarcerated individuals were released in Forsyth County. Most are looking for and needing jobs. Research has shown that a history of incarceration reduces a worker’s chance of being hired by up to 30 percent.
In 2010, the Center for Economic and Policy Research released a study, “Ex-Offenders and the Labor Market.” The findings were compelling. The study concluded that a felony conviction or imprisonment significantly reduced the ability of formerly incarcerated individuals to find jobs, costing the U.S. economy up to an estimated $65 billion in lost economic output each year.
In an effort to give fair consideration to everyone, some local and many national employers have voluntarily eliminated the question on their employment applications, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” Nationally, the movement to eliminate asking about convictions on an employment application is known as “ban the box.” It allows employers to consider a job candidate’s qualifications first, without prior knowledge of a conviction record.
By removing conviction history from the initial job application, it allows employers to view prospects objectively and on their own merits and gives prospects the opportunity to explain the circumstances of their criminal background as part of the interview process. It does not mean that the employer never asks about a conviction; merely that the question is asked later in the interview process. For companies that might consider doing so, the Chamber can be a resource to connect them with other organizations already adopting this practice which can provide them with practical advice and information.
While momentum for this policy has grown exponentially across the country the past few years, it is understandably controversial. Of course, criminal convictions will absolutely disqualify applicants from certain jobs—but prior convictions don’t necessarily have to disqualify the formerly incarcerated from all jobs.
Giving ex-offenders in our community a second chance for a fresh start and providing them with access to jobs could be one of the keys to unlocking the secret of a vibrant local economy.