September 2, 2015; Columbus Dispatch

According to the latest report by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, over 637,000 people were released from U.S. prisons in 2012. Sadly, two-thirds will reoffend within three years, and three-quarters within five years from release. Finding employment expands an individual’s connections, thereby increasing his or her chances of successfully reentering society. As the economy continues to rebound and the unemployment rate decreases, more employers are hiring workers with a criminal record, creating true second chances for these individuals and their families.

The country’s unemployment rate dropped in August to 5.1 percent, slightly more than half of the rate at the height of the Great Recession. The labor market in the state of Ohio continues to outpace that of the nation. In Central Ohio, the unemployment rate in August was 4.2 percent, and the Columbus area saw the state’s lowest unemployment rate, 3.8 percent.

One of the issues many employers in the region face is finding skilled workers. The executive director of OH! Manufacturing, John Watson, clearly sees the effects of the tight labor market. “When it comes to [the size of the] workforce, it is an area of concern for the entire country,” Watson said. “This is a conversation I have with plant managers and owners all over central Ohio. It has gone from challenging to where it is now stunting growth.”

OH! Manufacturing supports manufacturers throughout central Ohio by providing technical assistance that “enhance[s] product development and commercialization, and improve[s] manufacturing efficiency and effectiveness.” The organization’s expertise stems from their connections throughout the community and to their own staff. The latest blog post from OH! offers suggestions for expanding employers’ reach, such as reaching out to younger workers via social media and providing incentives for current employees to refer their friends and colleagues. They also suggest that employers explore creating a work environment that is more open to restored or returning citizens, women, and veterans.

Oh! Manufacturing is partnering with the Ohio Department of Rehabilitation & Corrections to develop the Training, Assessment, and Placement Project (TAPP). TAPP provides employment training for individuals convicted of nonviolent offenses as they finish their sentences. Once an individual is released, he or she is connected to employers looking for workers with their skills. The program was introduced in August and has already attracted interested employers.

TAPP is a collaboration between OH! Manufacturing and Vickie Miller, a program director for VM Consulting. She developed the training and other resources to successfully incorporate reentering individuals with their new opportunities. Since Miller has previous experience as a teacher in a corrections system, she understands the challenges individuals with criminal records face.

Before the labor market tightened, many employers immediately disqualified a worker once the employer became aware of the past criminal history. To encourage employers to give returning citizens a second chance, eighteen states and many cities have “banned the box,” requiring employers to remove questions regarding criminal histories from employment applications and other initial employment screening stages. In 2013, Ohio took an additional step, passing a law allowing some returning citizens to seal their records.

Through her work, Miller has identified lawyers, engineers, computer programmers, and others with essential skills in prison. But, many states disqualify individuals with criminal records from holding many licenses or practicing certain occupations, regardless of the circumstances or the type of crimes committed. Additionally, Ohio requires a criminal background check for any resident applying for insurance. These checks and limitations on professional licenses are often justified in the name of protecting public safety. In cases of teachers and others who work in schools, these limitations may be justified, but it is unclear how this justification applies to barber or cosmetology licenses, for example.

OH! Manufacturing also encourages manufacturers to recruit more women and veterans. The organization cites the trend of manufacturing moving away from jobs requiring physical strength to positions using education and intelligence. This new environment creates an opportunity for more women to excel. Women currently account for less than one quarter of the manufacturing labor force compared to half overall. (According to a recent study by the Manufacturing Institute, 65 percent of 600 women in the manufacturing industry state that the company they work for does not actively recruit women, 73 percent believe women are underrepresented in the leadership team, and 77 percent believe women are held to higher performance standards than their male counterparts.) Veterans’ service provides them with skills and a work ethic that are particularly valuable to employers. To succeed in the military, many learn to adapt to difficult situations. These experiences are particularly useful in the private-employer work environment, as well.

As these programs continue to provide resources to employers, more skilled and loyal workers will reenter the workforce, increasing efficiencies and industrial competiveness, leading to continued economic growth.—Gayle Nelson