In tight mar­ket, even pris­on­ers are job re­cruits

Houston Chronicle Sunday - - NATION | WORLD - By Ben Cas­sel­man

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.

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