I have no problem hiring ex-offenders. But they are disappointed | american small business

MThe company is hoping to hire a part-time person to implement and support some of the software applications we sell. Like most small business owners, finding someone isn’t easy in this tight job market, despite all the recent layoffs in the tech industry. I can’t afford to pay what some of these people are earning – or were earning – in Silicon Valley and so my choices are limited. So what to do?

How about hiring someone with a criminal record?

Big companies like JP Morgan Chase, American Airlines, AT&T and CVS have been doing it for years. The state and federal prison systems provide all kinds of opportunities for employers to hire people who were previously incarcerated. It’s not a bad bet, either: Studies — like this one — show that people with criminal records are no more likely to quit or be fired than anyone else.

States like Iowa and cities like Philadelphia offer cash incentives to employers who hire ex-convicts. The federal government also offers a very generous tax credit – the Work Opportunity Tax Credit – for hiring people recently released from prison. A number of non-profit organizations such as Honest Jobs, CareerAddict, 2ndChances4Felons, and the Women’s Prison Association connect employers with potential employees with criminal records or offer programs that facilitate the process. The Department of Labor offers assistance through its CareerOneStop platform.

I would have no problem filling my vacancy with an ex-felon or someone with a criminal record. People mess up. Some more seriously than others. But you pay your dues and should be allowed to try to live your life. Most of my clients feel the same way. And the general public too. In fact, a person’s criminal history has become so insignificant that even though employers can ask a potential candidate about it during pre-employment checks or background checks, many states do not allow that employer to discriminate based on their findings.

So no, I don’t care if a candidate for my company’s vacancy has a criminal record or is an ex-criminal. But I care about something that, to me, is even more important.

Are they able to read?

It’s one thing for all those government programs and non-profit organizations to help ex-criminals find jobs. But are they even qualified?

There are 10 million open jobs in the United States – hence the tight job market – but employers are mainly looking for skilled workers. Most of my clients, like me, need knowledgeable workers. And if they don’t have the knowledge, they must be able to learn, study and research. You can’t do that if you don’t read.

Numerous studies, such as that of 2003 by the Urban Institute, have found that approximately 70% of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts. About half are “functionally illiterate”, meaning they cannot read beyond a fourth-grade level.

Worse still, statistics show that 85% of all minors who interact with the juvenile justice system are essentially illiterate. Prison records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy support, compared to 70% who receive no support. I can’t hire someone – or even teach them the skills my business needs – if they don’t have high school literacy. Being illiterate is a complete non-starter.

Some of the big companies – and good for them – have the resources to help these ex-con get these skills. But small businesses like mine, which employ more than half of the country’s workers, don’t have the capacity to do that. So what can be done?

The answer is literacy. Don’t pay me to hire ex-criminals. Pay to make them literate. People in prison need to learn to read, period. Instead of tax credits and other hiring incentives for businesses, governments and nonprofits should invest in programs to educate inmates first about the basics of reading and math. This is the priority. Because once someone is at a proficient level of education, then he or she can learn the rest. But they can’t do that if they can’t read an instruction manual or study for a Microsoft certification.

That’s what I look for before I hire someone out of jail. I need people who can read. Unfortunately, this is not what the system produces.

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