Help truly wanted, even if you’ve been in jail

Here is a sentence you do not see in every job advertisement: “Applicants with criminal histories are welcome to apply.”

Those words appeared in US adverts last week for everything from a forklift driver in Florida to a brand designer in New York and a recruitment manager in Illinois. They will undoubtedly do so again.

As chronic staff shortages shut down swimming pools and restaurants, and leave crops to rot in fields, some researchers say there is rising interest in people with a criminal past.

“Employers seem to be warming up a little bit more to this group,” says AnnElizabeth Konkel, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab, a research arm of the Indeed jobs site.

Her analysis of the site’s May data shows the share of job searches with phrases such as “felon friendly” and “no background check” has risen 45 per cent since May last year and 117 per cent since May 2019.

This might be partly due to so-called “fair-chance” hiring policies aimed at helping the nearly one in three US adults believed to have a prior arrest or conviction record, she told me over Zoom last week. “But my interpretation of it is that the tight labor market is certainly playing a role,” she said.

I hope she is right. Despite years of research showing a good job helps to reduce prison recidivism, employers remain reluctant to hire people with a jail record.

So is a pandemic-driven struggle to find workers easing an entrenched criminal justice problem?

I tried to find out by calling BlueTriton, a US owner of bottled water brands such as Poland Spring that has placed a large number of adverts welcoming applicants with a criminal history. Had labor shortages influenced their move?

“As an employer of choice, it’s always been our practice at BlueTriton Brands to attract the widest pool of qualified potential applicants,” Chris Buhl, the group’s chief human resources officer, said in an emailed reply. “It allows us to solve for labor shortage challenges while also providing a new, exciting and potentially life-changing opportunity for applicants to develop personally and professionally.”

I think that counts as a “yes”. Either way though, if a trend does exist it is not large. Just 2.5 per cent of Indeed postings in May mentioned fair chance hiring. That is up from 1.9 per cent in May 2019, but is still a small percentage.

Yet the battle to hire staff means employers may be willing to overlook more than criminal histories. There are also signs of rising interest in people who lack formal qualifications.

In Canada, which had the highest job vacancy rates in the OECD earlier this year, separate Indeed research Last month showed a striking 78 per cent of employers were open to hiring candidates without a relevant degree or certifications. And 37 per cent said they would sacrifice years of experience. Similar trends have emerged in other countries.

“We’ve definitely seen a compromise on certain experiences and qualifications,” says Chris Gray, UK director of the ManpowerGroup recruitment company.

He says employers are taking on people who might only meet 60 per cent of a job description, then train them over the next three to six months. A public sector employer looking for an IT expert to work on a digital project might now be prepared to hire someone with only private sector experience, for example.

A rising interest in people with criminal records is not evident in the UK, he said. But employers are definitely looking for workers with so-called “soft skills”, such as a willingness to learn and an ability to handle pressure, as well as “hard” formal qualifications in their respective sectors.

That mirrors what the Indeed researchers found in Canada, where nearly 80 per cent of employers said they valued hiring candidates open to learning, rather than basing their recruitment on direct experience alone.

Again, this may be good news for social mobility. Will it last? Who knows at a time of growing fears that recession will unleash yet more jolting labor market shifts. But if these trying times can also spur some more hopeful changes, then that is no bad thing at all.

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