I’ve been talking about the skills shortage for many years, but now, post-Covid, we’re looking at something more: not just a skills shortage, but a labor shortage. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were 11.26 million job vacancies in America in January 2022, while 6.3 million Americans are registered as unemployed. Job vacancies outnumber available workers by nearly 5 million.
For employers, this is a crisis. But in every crisis, there is opportunity. I see the opportunity here for employers to reach out to groups previously under-represented in our workforce. I’ve written quite a bit lately about including people with disabilities in the workforce. But another largely untapped source of labor is the incarcerated population, including individuals who have experienced incarceration or are currently a resident.
We send a lot of people to prison in this country. The United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. But most people who go to prison are eventually released. And when these individuals go back to the community, they need to find work.
That job search can be difficult, however. According to a recent report from the Prison Policy Initiative, people who were formerly incarcerated have much higher unemployment rates than the general population. It’s not because they’re not looking. Most are highly engaged with job searches.
What holds them back is employer attitudes. Perhaps understandably, employers worry about workplace disruption, quality of work, and retention issues if they hire former prisoners. But these fears aren’t based on reality. In his recent book Untapped Talent, Jeffery Korzenik asserts that many formerly incarcerated people can—with the right supports—be as good or better employees than traditional hires.
The right supports are essential, and so is the right kind of work. I recently spoke with a former resident in Kansas who believes that getting someone a job as a laborer is not the right approach. Former residents need decently paid work in a structured environment, ideally with a team of co-workers working together toward company goals.
That’s the kind of environment you get in a registered apprenticeship program.
For instance, in Australia, apprenticeship is a popular and highly successful way to transition people into good jobs. It provides candidates with education, skills, and paid work from day one. I believe this model can work exceptionally well for formerly incarcerated people, as it answers three vital needs: structure, guidance, and a recognized credential.
Registered apprenticeship programs are structured around a curriculum created by the employer in consultation with local business and education leaders. An apprentice has a full day of supervised job tasks and classroom learning, progressing to more complex tasks as they build knowledge and skills. Apprenticeship programs last years, not months, so they offer built-in, long-term security.
Mentorship is already recognized as essential to successful re-entry for formerly incarcerated people. The court-sponsored MENTOR program in Philadelphia, for example, matches young people newly released from prison with volunteer community mentors for 12 months.
Apprenticeships have built-in mentorship. Every apprentice is paired with an experienced employee who not only guides them in concrete job skills but also imparts company culture and expectations. Mentors can spot any problems an apprentice has—on the job or off—and can help solve them before they get too big to handle.
Many jobs in the modern labor market require a credential, which people released from prison aren’t likely to have. But those who complete apprenticeship do get a credential: a nationally recognized and transferable credential in an in-demand occupation. Some apprenticeship programs also include academic courses that lead to an Associate’s degree. Apprentices can build on these credentials, earning additional certificates or more advanced degrees.
I believe apprenticeship can greatly benefit formerly incarcerated people, helping them transition back into work and community life.
But even more helpful would be starting an apprenticeship while still incarcerated.
Some programs like this are already underway. The Richard A. Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan features a “vocational village,” where inmates learn skills in a structured environment for trades that are in demand in their communities. Participants also live together so they can encourage each other and reinforce positive choices. Employers engage with inmates in the village before and after release.
And in February in the United Kingdom, the Conservative Johnson Government announced a new policy where prisoners at low-risk prisons can access pre-apprenticeship training while incarcerated and apply for apprenticeship positions across a range of sectors, enhancing their prospects of employment upon release.
Apprenticeship is an ideal strategy for employers to bring the incarcerated population into the workplace in a structured, guided way that benefits everyone. And now, during a red-hot labor market, is the ideal time to do it.
Nicholas Wyman is the president of Institute for Workplace Skills & Innovation