Meghen Yeadon, a recruiter for Stoughton, found part of the solution: a Wisconsin Department of Corrections work-release program for minimum-security inmates.
Work-release programs have often been criticized for exploiting inmates by forcing them to work grueling jobs for pay that is often well below minimum wage. But the Wisconsin program is voluntary, and inmates are paid market wages. State officials say the program gives inmates a chance to build up some savings, learn vocational skills and prepare for life after prison.
Ms. Yeadon initially encountered skepticism from supervisors. But as the local labor pool kept shrinking, it became harder to rule out a group of potential — albeit unconventional — workers.
Less Education, but Still Gaining
In the past five years, employment rates have grown the most among those who have not earned a high school diploma.
Some college or
diploma or G.E.D.
degree or higher
“Our company is looking for new ways to find pools of people just because of our hiring needs being so high,” Ms. Yeadon said. “It just took them to hear the right sales pitch.”
Other companies are making similar choices. Officials in Wisconsin and other states with similar inmate programs say demand for their workers has risen sharply in the past year. And while most companies may not be ready to turn to inmate labor, there are signs they are increasingly willing to consider candidates with criminal records, who have long faced trouble finding jobs.
The government doesn’t regularly collect data on employment for people with criminal records. But private-sector sources suggest that companies have become more willing to consider hiring them. Data from Burning Glass showed that 7.9 percent of online job postings indicated that a criminal-background check was required, down from 8.9 percent in 2014.
Mike Wynne has seen the change in employer mind-set firsthand. Mr. Wynne runs Emerge Community Development, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps people with criminal records or other difficulties find jobs. In the past, Mr. Wynne said, companies saw working with Emerge mostly as a form of public relations. But with the unemployment rate in the Minneapolis area at 2.1 percent, companies have increasingly turned to Emerge as a source of labor.
“We see employers really knocking on the door of our organization in a way that we haven’t seen in probably 20 years,” Mr. Wynne said.
As employers dip deeper into the pool of available labor, workers are coming off the economy’s sidelines. The participation rate for what economists call prime-age workers — those ages 25 to 54 — hit a seven-year high in December. Employment gains have been especially strong for groups that often face discrimination — unemployment for African-Americans fell to 6.8 percent in November, the lowest rate on record.
Amy Glaser, a senior vice president for Adecco, a staffing firm, said that especially during the recent holiday season, there was a surge in demand for warehouse workers, creating opportunities for people who might have struggled to find work earlier in the economic recovery. Two years ago, Ms. Glaser said, companies required warehouse workers to have high school diplomas and experience with the scanners used to track merchandise. Now, increasingly, they require neither, she said.
“We’ve seen an extreme escalation in the past 12 months,” Ms. Glaser said. “If someone applies for a job and you don’t get to them within 24 hours, that person will already have taken another job.”
Even during the strong economy that accompanied the housing boom of the mid-2000s, the unemployment rate never dropped below 4.4 percent, and the United States has never reached the point at which everyone who wanted a job could get one. Perhaps as a result, incomes were stagnant for many middle-class families, and many groups that have historically faced discrimination or other disadvantages in the labor market never experienced the full benefits of the strong economy.
Many economists say the recovery still has a ways to go before rivaling that of the late 1990s and early 2000s. The unemployment rate has fallen nearly as far as it did in 2000, when it hit 3.8 percent. But millions of Americans still have part-time or temporary jobs, or are out of the labor force entirely. And parts of the country still bear the scars of the recession that officially ended nearly a decade ago.
“I think of the late ’90s as having been a very healthy labor market,” said Narayana Kocherlakota, the former president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis. “When I look at the United States today, I think it has some room to grow in terms of achieving that kind of health.”
Still, household incomes have risen rapidly in the past two years, with the strongest gains coming for those in the poorest families. And there are signs that the tightening labor market is at last beginning to shift bargaining power from companies to workers. Ahu Yildirmaz, an economist who helps lead the research arm of the payroll-processing company ADP, said her firm’s data showed more people switching jobs, and getting bigger bumps in pay for doing so.
For Mr. Forseth, the job at Stoughton Trailers was an opportunity to save money and prove his value. He even earned the Employee of the Month award — although, because he was still incarcerated, he couldn’t take advantage of the parking spot that came with it.
Now, however, he is thinking bigger. Other jobs in the area pay higher wages, and his freedom has opened up more options. He has been talking to another local company, which is interested in training him to become an estimator — a salaried job that would pay more and offer room for advancement.
“They’re saying they’re willing to teach someone that wants to learn,” Mr. Forseth said. “That’d be an actual career.”
Credit Narayan Mahon for The New York Times
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