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New Initiatives from Philadelphia, Koch Industries, Work to Get Ex-Offenders Jobs

Last January, Koch Industries, through the Charles Koch Institute, announced a partnership with the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM) to develop the Getting Talent Back to Work Initiative, a program that educates businesses on the benefits of hiring ex-offenders.

“We have to figure out how we keep folks successful and from recidivating and going back to prison, or even jail, and part of that is (getting) a job,” said Jenny Kim, deputy general counsel and vice president, public policy for Koch Industries. “That is what the Getting Talent Back to Work initiative is about.”

With nearly 7 million jobs open at the time, the U.S. labor force simply didn’t have enough workers, she added. Though unemployment has since shot up as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a two-decade plunge continues in what’s called the “labor force participation rate” – the share of eligible people either working or looking for work.

About 61.5 percent of Americans who could work were in the labor force in June 2020, a decline of 1.5 percent from the level a year earlier and 5.6 percent below the level 20 years ago. Closing that gap could add nearly 15 million people to the pool of available workers when the economy eventually recovers.

 “We have to figure out a way to close the gap,” Kim said. “We also need to be more diverse and inclusive and we have to think about populations of the talent management pipeline.”

The initiative offers business some guidelines for hiring ex-offenders and pairs them with other firms that have completed the process and have experience hiring ex-offenders.

Prior to the pandemic, unemployment stood at about 3.5 percent, a historic low. But for about 5 million Americans who were formerly incarcerated, the rate was 27 percent, according to a 2018 study by the Prison Policy Initiative. With nearly a third of American adults carrying a criminal record, SHRM and the Charles Koch Institute are betting that educating potential employers will help solve two problems at once when the economy improves: Businesses can fill open positions and people who want to work can get jobs, despite a criminal record.

Kim points out that hiring ex-offenders makes good business sense and helps make communities safe. Failure to involve those with criminal records into the workforce poses a cost to the economy estimated at $87 billion annually, she said.

While the Charles Koch Institute and SHRM are focusing on education, the city of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania is paying businesses to hire recently released prisoners. Begun in July 2017, the city’s Fair Chance Hiring Initiative (FCHI) targets small- and medium-size businesses that are more likely to consider hiring offenders who have been released in the last five years.

To date, 60 participating businesses have hired about 110 people. The program reimburses businesses $5 per hour for each position, up to 40 hours per week, with a maximum of $1,000 annually. Workers are recruited and screened through Philadelphia-based worker retraining nonprofit OIC of America, the state employment agency, PA CareerLink, and the Office of Reintegration Service of Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kennedy (D).

Though Koch Industries chairman and CEO Charles Koch is a longtime supporter of conservative political causes, a 2016 report by The Marshall Project noted that Charles and his brother, David (now deceased), gave support to measures to reform the criminal justice system and end mass incarceration, citing the benefits of doing so to employers and the economy. Through programs like the Getting Talent Back to Work Initiative, it’s hoped that employers can successfully reintegrate ex-offenders back into the workforce with proper education and incentives.