In tight market, even prisoners are job recruits
A rapidly tightening labor market is forcing companies across the country to consider workers they once would have turned away. That is providing opportunities to people who have long faced barriers to employment, such as criminal records, disabilities or prolonged bouts of joblessness.
In Dane County, Wis., where the unemployment rate was just 2 percent in November, demand for workers has grown so intense that manufacturers are taking their recruiting a step further: putting inmates to work in factories even while they serve their prison sentences.
“When the unemployment rate is high, you can afford to not hire anyone who has a criminal record, you can afford to not hire someone who’s been out of work for two years,” said Lawrence Summers, the Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary. “When the unemployment rate is lower, employers will adapt to people rather than asking people to adapt to them.”
The U.S. economy hasn’t experienced this kind of fierce competition for workers since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last time the unemployment rate — currently 4.1 percent — was this low.
The tight job market hasn’t yet translated into strong wage growth for U.S. workers. But there are tentative signs that that, too, could be changing.
Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based software company that analyzes job-market data, has found an increase in postings open to people without experience.
Until recently, someone like Jordan Forseth might have struggled to find work. Forseth, 28, was released from prison in November after serving a 26-month sentence for burglary and firearm possession. Forseth, however, had a job even before he walked out a free man.
Nearly every weekday morning for much of last year, Forseth would board a van at the prison outside Madison, Wis., and ride to Stoughton Trailers, where he and more than a dozen other inmates earned $14 an hour wiring taillights and building sidewalls for the company’s line of semitrailers.
After he was released, Forseth kept right on working at Stoughton.
Stoughton Trailers, a manufacturer that employs about 650 people at its plant in Dane County, has raised pay, offered referral bonuses and expanded its in-house training program. But it has still struggled to fill dozens of positions.
Data from Burning Glass showed that 7.9 percent of online job postings indicated that a criminalbackground check was required, down from 8.9 percent in 2014.