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Friday, May 3, 2019

Alabama Blue Print to Getting Talent Back to Work

The Labor Shortage and Untapped Supply Chain - an Alabama Solution

Following the nationwide trend, there is a labor shortage in the State of Alabama and in as much an emergent window of opportunity.  Comparable to many other states, the State of Alabama, in the aggregate, is at full-employment.  In fact, despite more rural regions of the state experiencing double digit unemployment rates, there are other regions that are projected to soon reach negative employment.  What if this issue was tackled vertically and could result in an Alabama Solution not only Alabama’s labor shortage, but also favorably respond to a multitude of societal crisis in Alabama? Does this seem too good to be true?  The real answer lies in the fact that underutilized talent pools exist in Alabama and they span across several populations of viable and job ready workers. There are two primary questions to consider:
  • How can the State of Alabama address the crisis in the Department of Corrections with overcrowding, mounting suicide levels, and ex-con unemployment?
  • Can there be a solution that the State of Alabama can implement that can confront both the critical shortage of skilled labor (and non-skilled labor) in an era of economic boom and as it continues to recruit new industries, and while expanding other industries, all while unemployment rates plunge to historic lows?

Recently, the United States Justice Department found that “Alabama prisons are so dangerous [due to overcrowding and growing suicide rates] that there is reasonable cause to believe that the State is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.”  Similarly, on May 4, 2019, a Montgomery Federal Judge issued a 210-page ruling ordering a number of sweeping directives and notably expressing doubt at the Alabama Department of Corrections ability to enforce its own policies after 15 male prisoners died by suicide in a 15-month period of time in 2018 and 2019. The irony is that the prisons are filled with re-offenders who in many cases due to lack of ability to find work re-offend to provide for themselves and their families, or because of a drug addiction which they cannot afford treatment because they are jobless.  It becomes a vicious cycle, yet actionable steps could be taken to break this chain. 

Why is this segment of unemployed ex-convicts not more actively pursued to fill job vacancies that many argue are impossible to fill?  While this opportunity is broad-based, the cornerstone of this article will unpack the dilemma of mass numbers of unemployed ex-convicts in the State of Alabama who have paid their debt to society, yet face such strict scrutiny in the employment process, including intensive background checks that surface their past, and result in their exclusion from being even considered by employers that so desperately could use their knowledge, skills, and abilities.  

National Second Chance Survey Results

In a recently conducted survey, the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM) focused on human resource practitioner perception of employing individuals with criminal records.  Funded by the Charles Koch Institute, the Second Chance Survey findings revealed 74 percent of managers and 84 percent of HR professionals nationwide said they were willing or amenable to the idea of hiring individuals with a criminal record. In fact, only a small minority were unwilling to make the hire or work alongside these individuals.

In January 2019, SHRM announced its GettingTalentBackToWork Pledge initiative in which businesses are committing to give the same opportunity to qualified applicants with a criminal background as they do to those who do not. As of March 2019, more than 700 companies, associations and nonprofits had taken the pledge.  At a time when the national unemployment rate is 3.8%, SHRM purports that nationally more than 7.8 million jobs need to be filled by 2020. With 650,000 people being released from jail and prison every year, the time is ripe for employers to be more open to those with a criminal history.

Keys to Re-entry to Reduce Recidivism

Numerous re-entry studies have shown that the key to reducing recidivism, and improving public safety, is properly preparing the offenders for release into a free society and helping them locate a well-paying job. This includes (1) the selection of offenders who are truly motivated to make a change for good; (2) upgrading their educational skills and industrial certificates to deliver what business and industry are searching for; (3) sharing with offenders, pre-release while inside of prison walls, certain coping, dispute resolution, and critical thinking skills so that they can be successful in a free society; (4) upon re-entry helping them with critical bridging infrastructure of housing, transportation, and pro-social faces and places often found within relationships in the faith-based community; (5) access to empathetic and resourceful mentors upon re-entry; (6) drug treatment and strict drug testing accountability plans; and (7) most importantly, finding the ex-offender stable well-paying employment with employers who have taken the Second Chance GettingTalentBackToWork Pledge.

Alabama Success Story

In the State of Alabama there have been limited organized employer efforts to reemploy offenders.  However, the West Alabama Works Prisoner Re-Entry Ready to Work Initiative at Bibb Correctional offers great promise in its collaboration with the non-profit LifeLink CORE, the Alabama Department of Corrections, the Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce, Shelton State Community College, Church of the Highlands and multiple businesses and industry in West Alabama area who currently hiring ex-offenders who graduate the two-year certified program.

Tuscaloosa Chamber of Commerce website link to Press Release:

Links to LifeLink CORE videos:

Business executives, HR professionals, and other employees can help break these individuals out of this cycle by considering this source of untapped talent for open roles and encouraging others to do the same. At its meeting on May 2, 2019, the Board of Directors of the East Alabama Chapter of the Society of Resources Managers took the national SHRM GettingTalentBackToWork Pledge and will make the entire GettingTalentBackToWork Toolkit of forms and guidance available to all of its members and all employers in the East Alabama Community.  There is clearly a systematic process to protect employers, while still giving a fair and unbiased opportunity for those with a criminal background to enjoy the freedom to work.

Alabama Small Business Works to Provide Corrections Solution

In Georgia, UnicusID’s Shepherd System, with its offices located in Auburn Research Park located on the Auburn University campus, is offering a Corrections is currently being used in judicial diversion (as an alternative to jail) allowing a judge to release an offender under supervision while being able to biometrically authenticate the offender’s identification and location, set "no-go zones," allow the victim third-party access to the offenders location, and determine the offender's compliance with the judge's order, all from the comfort of a computer screen or mobile device. Company founder Patrick Taylor described the Shepherd System as “a technology revolution in evidence-based offender re-entry programs, and court supervised release, with unlimited future functional upgrades to the Shepherd System as mobile device technology continues to advance. The UnicusID Shepherd System allows for a true collaboration of judges, correction officers, the faith-based community, nonprofits, industrial partners and trainers, educators, and drug testing and treatment providers, to holistically support the ex-offenders who are motivated to change and willing to demonstrate to all stakeholders that they can be trusted.”

Giving Ex–Offenders a Second Chance Opportunity is Right for Alabama Business

On March 28, 2019, Governor Kay Ivey issued a Proclamation which designated April 2019 as Second Chance Month, “to increasing public awareness about the need for closure for those who have paid their debt, and opportunities for individuals, employers, congregations and communities to extend second chance.”

In Closing - Alabama’s Collaborative Opportunity

This article has comprehensively laid out a workable solution to the current corrections and workforce development crisis, which brings together Alabama State Government, industrial trainers and educators, institutions of higher education, faith and nonprofit communities, and emerging technology to collaboratively solve two of Alabama’s most critical emergencies:  1) the evolving labor shortage, and 2) the Alabama Department of Corrections crisis.  There is an existing opportunity and the timing is right through such a collaborative model linked through emerging technology.  The labor shortage problem is clear, but the critical path lies in the concerted and intentional focus on returning ex-convicts to work, where possible.  With these aforementioned described approaches, organizations have the opportunity to utilize this population of workers to solve not only their labor shortage, but enable this group to make important contributions to productivity and high impact deliverables in the workplace, as well as create a better quality of life for themselves and their families.  It’s time for Alabama to explore how to safely Get Its Talent (that is currently behind bars) Back to Work.

Tommy Eden is a management labor attorney with the law firm of Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP, in Opelika, AL, and serves in the correctional ministry of The Church of the Highlands. He also serves on the Board of Directors of the East Alabama Society of Human Resources Managers (EASHRM) Chapter, and is outside Counsel to UnicusID.