Why you should consider second-chance hiring to overcome labor shortages

The construction industry has been plagued by labor shortages for most of the past decade. Despite more than a decade of rising demand, total construction employment has yet to fully recover from the exodus of skilled workers in the wake of the 2008 recession.

Although the early months of the pandemic eliminated activity in the sector for a brief period, the industry’s workforce strains are not only returning but are likely to get worse. As traditional sources of workers dry up, construction companies need to explore and exploit nontraditional pipelines of talent. Done right, some of the best of these opportunities lie in the large population of Americans who have a criminal record.


The Economic Factors

The construction industry has long been thought of as felony-friendly. Unlike large swaths of the business community, a criminal record has not been an automatic disqualification for a job applicant in the construction community. But hiring for
low-level laborer roles or hiring people with records as a last resort is a far cry from true second-chance hiring, consciously building a talent pipeline from the millions touched by the criminal justice system.

Establishing pathways for construction careers for workers who have been marginalized by a criminal record may well become a necessity as competition for workers increases. The same demographic forces that brought demand for residential construction to house the baby boomer generation has a dark side from the standpoint of employers. Older workers, often among the most experienced and skilled in the construction industry, continue to retire, and future workers are harder to find.

Birth rates peaked cyclically in the United States in 1990, and current American fertility rates won’t even replace our existing population. As the economy wide competition for workers heats up, the construction industry continues to suffer from the (however unwarranted) societal skepticism of careers in the goods-producing economy. For those open to such careers, construction will continue to compete for talent with the energy industry, but now also with new demands for manufacturing workers. As if all this wasn’t enough, the Federal Reserve Bank has unveiled a “new monetary policy framework” that may keep labor markets tighter for longer.


Second-Chance Hiring

Why should employers view people with criminal records as a solution? This demographic is simply too large to ignore: 19 million Americans have a felony conviction. It’s also telling that over half were convicted of crimes so minor they did not incur an actual prison sentence. Ultimately, this quantity of potential workers is meaningless if it does not meet quality requirements. It may seem counterintuitive, but properly selected and supported, pioneering employers have proven that people with criminal records can be outstanding employees. The key is a hiring model that identifies who among this population is truly ready for employment and provides accommodations that allow them to thrive. Studies show that people given such a second chance under these conditions are exceptionally engaged and loyal — a recipe for low turnover and high productivity in your workforce.

Like the fostering of any talent resource, establishing an effective second-chance hiring program requires an investment of time and experimentation. Partnerships are key, starting with referral sources that understand and support your business needs. Often, these partners are found in nonprofit workforce development agencies or those specializing in the reintegration of people exiting prisons. Such organizations range from those with a national reach, like Goodwill Industries, down to local churches. Government officials have also become important resources as state prison systems increasingly focus on job training. The Michigan Department of Corrections’ Vocational Village sites offer training and certification in areas relevant to the industry: carpentry, plumbing, electrical and masonry or concrete. Michigan is not alone; Kansas is building a Career Campus in a correctional facility and most states have programs of some kind. Probation and parole officers can also be potential referral sources. In general, employers will be surprised to find how many resources and willing partners are available to them.

Building Partnerships

Partnerships are also key to supporting the special challenges faced by people with records. Often these are simply the challenges of being raised in poverty and despair: lack of mentorship, or challenges with housing and transportation. Often, the same nonprofits that can refer job applicants can also provide support in these areas.

Mentoring and building a relationship of trust is particularly important. Many companies have found that hiring a life coach plays a transformational role not only for second-chance employees, but their entire workforce. This does not always need to be done solely within the company; one Chicago construction company with a well-structured second-chance program enlisted the local union to help successfully coach a union employee through his challenges accepting developmental feedback. The Nevada nonprofit Hope for Prisoners provides 18 months of post-prison mentorship, and Minnesota’s The Redemption Project starts mentorship and interviewing 6 months before release.

While some of these resources will cost money, they should be understood as investments; most established second-chance employers report that the return on these investments is a multiple of the outlay. Moreover, employers can often benefit from government subsidies like the Work Opportunity Tax Credit or training grants that defray some of these expenses.


Meeting the Challenge


This is not to say that there are not challenges. Negligent hiring liability concerns, licensing restrictions, bonding and insurance challenges, customer requirements and employee and public perceptions can all be obstacles. Each of these perceived roadblocks need to be challenged; in all too many instances, the actual restrictions are far less cumbersome than assumed. These hurdles are also offset by intangible benefits even beyond the engaged and loyal workforce advantage; companies involved in solving societal problems gain in broad employee engagement, public goodwill and sometimes even preferential treatment in bidding processes.

Employers who aspire to tap the true potential of our population need to ensure that their recruiting processes give each applicant truly fair consideration. The timeframe of background checks, ensuring that any criminal background review is not exceedingly biased toward rejection, and even how open positions are posted can all influence the ability to build an effective talent pipeline. The Society for Human Resource Management’s new “Getting Talent Back to Work” certification training is one good starting point for human resources professionals, but effective programs generally will need a “champion” in the most senior ranks of a company.

Second-chance hiring has to stand alone as a business proposition. Companies write checks to charities, but they only hire those who can contribute to their bottom lines. But businesses are also run by human beings, and few of us would want to be judged forever by our own worst mistakes. Many of us recognize the benefits of operating in an economy that offers everyone the chance to prosper. Second-chance hiring offers the opportunity to build our workforce, treat individuals as we ourselves would like to be treated and ensure that our country is a land of opportunity for all.