Updated: Apr 1
I designed the “Collaboration for Social Benefit” model based on my deep-seated experience in the criminal justice system and understanding of the challenges individuals face when they’re released from prison after serving their sentences. The model is further based upon an understanding of the labor market and shortages that exist in various industries. The inability to find sufficient labor impacts companies’ sustainability and is a drain on the economy.
Whether intentionally or not, the current system is operating in a series of silos, in which one is indifferent to what the other is doing. There are numerous reasons for this, the most dominant of which is funding. My lived experience allows me to witness this and also to identify points of intersection through collaboration. Components exist to remedy both of these challenges, but they must be coordinated to bring about the necessary results.
2nd Opportunity L3C actively pursues solutions to these problems. As Vice President of Training & Development, I share our programs with currently and formerly incarcerated individuals who are seeking to create a path to a fulfilling life; I also speak with employers about the benefits of hiring people with a background.
A win-win outcome
A labor shortage exists in various industries. In Illinois, for example, the following industries have been identified as having an insufficient number of candidates to fill these high-demand fields:
Commercial Drivers (CDL)
Supply Chain Management and Logistics
In 2018, the Society for Human Resource Management embarked on a campaign called “Getting Talent Back to Work.” The mission was to create employment opportunities for those who had been incarcerated. Johnny C. Taylor, CEO of the society, is a champion for this cause. Make no mistake: The campaign was deliberately designed to create a win-win outcome. Taylor is seeking to solve a very legitimate business problem with respect to a shortage of workers for various positions.
At the same time, this forward-thinking plan would create opportunities for people desperately looking for work in meaningful positions from which they could build a career. Meaningful employment provides many individual and societal benefits, including giving individuals the opportunity to reclaim their dignity and a path to assume personal responsibility and self-sufficiency.
The second significant societal problem addressed by “Collaboration for Social Benefit” is the very real and expensive problem of recidivism. As addressed in my essay “A Parallel Path”, the cost of recidivism to taxpayers is enormous; in Illinois alone, the projection is $13.5 billion over the next five years. A major factor in reducing recidivism is access to jobs that pay a living wage and provide benefits.
In June 2019, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation hosted an event to launch its new magazine, America Working Forward. Included in the launch was the acknowledgment that formerly incarcerated individuals have a role in working forward. Consider that 75% of those who are formerly incarcerated do not have a job within one year of their release.
The ‘Collaboration for Social Benefit’ model
There are four components to the “Collaboration for Social Benefit” model:
Hiring firms. At 2nd Opportunity, we targeted industries that have a need to attract talent and express a willingness to hire from traditionally neglected groups. Specifically, we proposed hiring formerly incarcerated individuals, veterans, and individuals from economically impoverished areas.
Formal training programs. We have identified programs that provide specific skills training (trades) and licensing in the identified industries. Many of these programs are run by organizations that are funded by government grants. Examples are the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (2015) and the Workforce Equity Initiative (2019).
Job readiness and employment socialization training organizations. 2nd Opportunity provides the skills training that helps individuals reintegrate into society and acclimate to employment scenarios. This work includes skill building in communications, conflict resolution, trauma-induced behavior, financial literacy, and goal setting. The work is performed both during incarceration and upon release and includes ongoing peer support and mentoring. We also provide support to hiring firms through management workshops and onboarding assistance.
Federal, state, and local tax incentives. The Work Opportunity Tax Credit and other state and local incentives provide financial reimbursements to qualified employers who hire eligible candidates.
The talent pool
The center of the diamond represents the talent readily available through the state and federal prison systems, which return 600,000 individuals to society every year. This group can be accessed through a purposeful approach to training coupled with ongoing support to help individuals adapt to the expectations of current society, which has changed during their time of incarceration. Technology, tools, systems, and prison “inactivity” are a few barriers that we need to overcome upon release.
There is, however, an upside to hiring this group: loyalty. The ACLU conducted a study that revealed a 12-14 percent lower turnover rate for individuals who were previously incarcerated when compared to other sources of candidates. Employers often ask me the reason for this. I believe we appreciate a company that has taken a chance on us and provided us with an opportunity to demonstrate our value. It goes beyond a paycheck; it is a way we can show our families and those we disappointed by our past actions that we want to fit in and shoulder our responsibilities. It also boosts self-confidence and provides hope for the future.
The top of the diamond represents the firms that want to participate in this program. It is more challenging than simply saying, “I want to hire people who have been incarcerated.” It's having an understanding of how to best onboard, train, support, and manage this population to receive a superior result. I have done work with companies’ management to raise awareness of barriers and to provide a trauma-informed lens from which a formerly incarcerated person can be viewed.
When I entered a halfway house upon my release, I hadn't driven an automobile for more than 12 years. I went through the exams to renew my driver’s license and was blessed to have a vehicle to drive to work every day. I left the halfway house early in the morning to get to work, with my route causing me to have to merge onto the Eisenhower Expressway. I would panic coming down the entry ramp; I didn’t see many things moving 70 miles an hour in prison. This anxiety repeated itself at the end of the day when I had to drive back. I had to rely on someone being patient with me so I could merge into traffic. Once I was in, I drove just like everyone else. Today, I have overcome that obstacle, and getting onto expressways is no longer an issue. This story seems to resonate with managers who understand its message: A little patience offers the potential for great upside.
The right point of the diamond represents the availability of federal, state, and local tax incentives. These incentives occur on the federal level through the work opportunity tax credit, which provides a financial incentive to employers that hire recently released individuals. State and local governments also offer tax incentives through enterprise zones, which provide incentives for the increase in a company's workforce. To be clear, companies should not see this as a long-term solution if they're simply doing it to take advantage of the tax credits.
Formal training programs
The left point of the diamond represents formal training programs to help individuals develop real, marketable, in-demand skills. Individuals that are trained specific to needs of companies and industries bring with them great value. There are programs offered through the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, the Workforce Equity Initiative, and others that address the most in-demand positions. In general, these programs offer a certification within three to four months. Companies can participate by giving their employees flexibility to complete this training, resulting in a well-trained employee able to contribute in a meaningful way to the company.
Specific skills can also be developed during incarceration. In fact, the U.S. Department of Labor offers apprenticeship programs inside prisons throughout the country. Coordinating the needs of industries with these apprenticeship programs is not complicated. The apprenticeship program provides technical training, often contracted through community colleges, as well as on-the-job training as individuals work inside the prisons. (Please check back for my upcoming blog post, “The Value of Prison Apprenticeships.”)
I am very familiar with the apprenticeship program offered inside prisons, as I had the opportunity to complete an apprenticeship in quality assurance. The entire process took approximately 2.5 years, which allowed me to amass the required 4,000 hours of hands-on experience in addition to completing the courses conducted by the local community college inside the prison.
A purposeful collaboration between the Department of Labor, the prison, the local college, and industries and employers who are able to provide input to craft a curriculum results in properly trained employees looking to work upon re-entry.
Job readiness and employment socialization training
The bottom point of the diamond represents the job readiness and employment socialization training that is necessary for someone rejoining the workforce following incarceration. 2nd Opportunity is a pioneer in this inside-out approach to working with men and women during incarceration and then continuing post-release to provide ongoing virtual peer support and personal mentor programs by those with lived experience.
We are able to scale our impact by providing access to our programs through the computer tablets inside jails and prisons, in addition to having a web-based education platform for those who have been released and are winding their way through a halfway house or probation. Part of our curriculum helps individuals identify and understand the type of career they would like to pursue so that we can help them select apprenticeships or prepare to enter training programs upon release.
‘Collaboration for Social Benefit’ summary
In conclusion, the Society for Human Resource Management was certainly right to recognize the synchronicity between companies, government entities, and nonprofits. “Nonprofits are great partners to provide the job training, wraparound services, and rehabilitation programs to get people who were formerly incarcerated prepared to reenter the workforce.” (Taylor, C.M., 2018, June 18) The “Collaboration for Social Benefits” model relies on lived experience with a deep knowledge of the essential needs for re-entry and an understanding of the gaps that exist.
Taylor, C. Mitch, June 18, 2018, Getting Talent Back to Work, Blog.SHRM.org https://blog.shrm.org/blog/getting-talent-back-to-work