In tight labor market, business groups highlight hiring ex-inmates

As unemployment drops nationwide and in Alaska, job openings outnumber potential employees and now business organizations are encouraging employers to consider an expanded labor pool in a push to fill positions.

“One of the biggest issues that businesses have is that they can’t hire people fast enough to fill the demand that they have for workers,” said Michael Carney, vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the national Chamber of Commerce.

Recently released numbers from the Department of Labor and Workforce Development show a drop in Alaska’s unemployment rate compared to a year ago —in Anchorage and the Mat-Su, it now sits at 5.7 percent. Nationwide, the unemployment rate is even lower; hovering below 4 percent.

Meanwhile, in May, the number of job openings around the country outnumbered the unemployed workforce by more than a million, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. To widen the pool, a growing number of organizations are encouraging more businesses to consider ex-offenders and former inmates for potential openings. 

“Just based on the evidence that we’ve seen, we believe there are extraordinary opportunities, and savvy businesses are already tapping into this hidden workforce,” Carney said.

Seeking to evaluate the opportunities, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation recently conducted a year-long review of some of the businesses and organizations building pathways to employment for formerly incarcerated people. Carney said the project revealed significant benefits: inclusive hiring practices help businesses fill vital positions, and help people who’ve spent time in prison find valuable work.

“There are a lot of examples of companies and governments that are doing it right,” Carney said. “It typically involves a partnership between employers and prisons and nonprofits, and it’s in that ecosystem that I think we can get a handle on what is a significant challenge for our society.”

The challenge of finding qualified applicants to fill positions isn’t new for Alaska employers. Patty Hickok, president of the Anchorage Society of Human Resources Management, said Alaska employers with positions to fill can be stymied by several factors, from geography to a statewide skill gap.  

To help fill the gap, her chapter joined its national society on an initiative called “Getting Talent Back to Work,” in which members commit to change their recruiting practices to include those with criminal backgrounds. By considering more people for potential openings, Hickok said, employers can meet their own business needs while strengthening their entire community.

“I think by what we are doing in human resources, we can actually have an impact in our communities and our society, and to give some of these individuals an opportunity to get a job; to get back on their feet, to support their families … and be productive members of society,” she said.

Kirsten Swann is a producer and reporter for Alaska Public Media.

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