Inside Voices: Can’t Find Workers? Ask Jeff Korzenik to Help.April 28, 2021
The unemployment rate is close to double what it was when we first learned of Jeff Korzenik’s work, but now, as then, employers carp about not being able to find workers. Jeff has a solution, and today we are fortunate to have roped him into an interview. Jeff is chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank in Chicago, and an expert and tireless advocate of getting those who have spent time behind bars into work-world.
A practical man, Jeff opens his book with a note to those presently incarcerated, and if you donate books to your local prison, you might consider including a copy of his book in your next drop-off. (And, no, we don’t get a kick-back.)
Read an excerpt from this interview below, and click here to read the full interview.
Q. Thanks for taking the time to speak with us, Jeff. Let’s open with words. They matter. Second chancer, returning citizen, supervised persons, sometimes a refreshing ex-con. Could you say a few words about language & labels as they affect your work?
A. I agree with the premise that people-centered language is important. It is really wrong that someone with a felony conviction is termed a “felon” forever. I am, however, wary of using language in a scolding way as is sometimes done. It’s also worth noting that some of these terms don’t capture the entirety of the population that has been impacted by the criminal justice system – for example, only about half of the people convicted of felonies even had to serve an actual prison sentence, and people who have been arrested but found innocent can still face barriers. In the book I do have a section that touches very lightly on the language issue, and I most commonly use the broad phrase, “people with records.”
Q. I know a while back, while most of us weren’t exactly heading for the airport, you told me you were taking your first flight since lock-down so you could make a connection between a potential employee and employer, I think that’s it. That made me wonder what your days on the road are like.
A. In 2019 I did about 140 flight segments. The first pandemic-period flight I did was visiting with JBM Packaging, the company that’s the subject of the second-chance employer case study in the book. Although I could have done everything remotely, I felt I owed it to my readers to dive in as deeply as I could. I’ve been including that business for years in my talks and have worked with their visionary CEO many times, but I needed to get there in person. I now fly once or twice a month. The experience of flying has improved dramatically since my first trip, now that there’s very good adherence to mask protocols in airports and flying. Flying and travel is much less enjoyable during this period, with many amenities not open, the discomfort of masks on long plane rides, etc, but it has been doable.
Q. As long as I have followed your work you have taken the pragmatic approach, documenting that rejecting job applicants only because they have prison records makes no sense in a tightening labor market, and that employers who take on second chancers find they have loyal workers who are generally more productive than general hires.
That was when the unemployment rate was 3.5%. It’s close to twice that now, but that’s not a deal-breaker for your approach. Even with another 10 million unemployed persons, we’re hearing that employers are having trouble finding workers, before it was qualifications, now it’s UI benefits beating out what they are willing or able to pay.
It may be heartlessly practical to say that since it’s widely known that people with prison records for even minor offenses earn at least 10% less than those with similar skill sets and no records, but isn’t there a real opportunity here, especially with an influx of early releases to slow the spread of Covid in crowded prisons?
A. I emphasize in my work that this is business, not charity. People who have hit bottom and bounced back, often against extraordinary odds, display real character. The term most commonly associated with second chance hires is “grit.” If anything, the pandemic has highlighted the advantage of having a workforce of engaged and loyal employees. The challenge is that there is a right way to hire people with a criminal records and numerous wrong ways. The right way requires processes that identify who is ready to rebuild their lives, and provide the support systems needed. It is an investment – one with a very good payoff in low turnover expenses and productive employees, but an employer needs to understand the model that works. Support systems need not cost the employer anything, using government services, nonprofits or simply good internal mentoring, but the need for some level of accommodation is very real.
With unemployment still elevated, it is difficult to get companies to make any kind of investment, but those who had already established a talent pipeline from this population are sticking with it. We term the economic period of the pandemic as The Great Disruption, and this includes labor market disruptions with skill and geographic mismatches pointing to less abundance in available workers. For those industries hiring, there are already labor shortages. I’ve been contacted by two separate manufacturing companies in the last few weeks looking to explore second chance programs because they can’t find enough qualified traditional workers.
Q. I understand we need a national database for employers committed to hiring second chancers. Any word on how that’s going?
A. There are some initiatives that I know about but are not yet public, but I think the business community is about to assume a great leadership role in fixing this societal issue. Employment is foundational to rehabilitation, so this is something that simply cannot improve without business involvement. One of the challenges to this is that being a second chance employer is not always perceived as a positive by the public and consumers; businesses are wary of being identified as a company that hires people with a record, and that holds back corporate executives from even discussing the issue. I was trying to speak to an employer in Florida about his successful second chance hiring program, and his HR department convinced him not to meet with me.
Q. John Hopkins tracked 500 working parolees for three years and uncovered no “problematic terminations,” but there is also reluctance among some employers to hire those with prison records based on safety or liability concerns. The Society for Resource Management reports that eighty-two percent of managers said their ex-offender hires were at least as successful as their average hires, yet fourteen percent of managers say they would not hire an “ex-offender.”
We’re reading that many of the programs, like anger-management and high-school equivalency, designed to facilitate the transition from prison to work, are being cut in the pandemic.
Any thoughts on how employers themselves could put practices in place that would replace those programs In order to bring needed workers onboard?
A. Those program cuts are primarily due to health considerations, not budget, so this too shall pass. State prison authorities are increasingly working to build out these kinds of supportive programs, so I am actually quite hopeful. Again, though, this will work much better if employers see people behind bars as their future workforce and lobby for better in-prison programming. Many nonprofits have done a great job filling the void and some private sector employers have also shown exemplary leadership.