Desperate for workers, companies recruit ex-cons

The Associated Press
Saturday November 11, 2000

CHICAGO — With the economy booming, many employers around the country are so desperate for workers that they are going to great lengths to recruit ex-convicts, former gang members and recovering drug addicts. 

Fliers are being posted in halfway houses.  

An increasing number of employers are offering college tuition reimbursements.  

Some companies, like United Parcel Service, even have recruiting vans that roam city neighborhoods in search of applicants. 

Among the more popular methods are “second-chance” job fairs, which have been organized this year from Massachusetts, Ohio and Iowa to Texas and California. 

At a recent Chicago job fair, organized by state and private agencies, there were hundreds of applicants and more than a dozen employers, from Radisson and Hilton hotels to United HealthCare and the Army. 

“I need to stay busy – to take care of my kids and stay off the streets, because it’s getting pretty bad out there,” said Antwan Berry, a 22-year-old former drug dealer and father of three who was filling out an application with a messenger service. 

“This is my chance to change my life around,” said Berry, who is on probation and having trouble finding the fork-lift driving job he wants. 

The nation’s unemployment rate is 3.9 percent, a 30-year-low. America is going through its longest stretch of economic growth ever, nearly 10 years and counting, and employers are having trouble filling jobs. 

In addition, some experts say businesses might be more willing to hire ex-convicts because they have already had success hiring welfare-to-work applicants. 

“The overall impression is that welfare recipients are pretty good employees,” said Irene Lurie, a welfare reform researcher at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, N.Y. 

Competition for the best of the applicants is so fierce that employers are getting creative. In St. Louis, for example, Titan Tube Fabricators posts fliers in halfway houses to help fill welding and other jobs. 

“It’s definitely hard to come across good people,” said Kevin Black, a Walgreens drugstore manager who attended the Chicago fair.  

He said he and another store manager hired six people at a similar job fair two years ago and the employees are still with the company. 

Employers say they are also impressed with ex-convicts who are coming to them well-prepared – asking good questions, dressed in suits and often with resumes in hand. 

That is due in part to coaching they get the day before the job fair and in prison.  

The first rule they are taught: Be honest about your criminal record. 

“A lot of them will tell you right up front that they have a problem with money,” Black said. “So we’ll start them off as service clerks and see how they do.” 

He and other employers say they consider applicants case by case – looking at the type of offense, when it happened and length of the sentence. They also insist that anyone with drug or alcohol addictions is at least in rehab. 

Their method seems to be gaining popularity. 

Last year, at its fourth annual job conference, the Northern California Service League, a San Francisco agency that serves ex-offenders, placed more than 600 of them in jobs with wages averaging $8.40 an hour.  

This year, employment administrator Darro Jefferson said the agency is on track to place 1,000. 

Part of the key, he said, is to “turn negatives into positives.” 

He tells the story of a former drug dealer who had no other skills than, well, salesmanship. Jefferson got him a job at a San Francisco car dealership, where he is now an assistant general manager. 

Matthew Hinton, released in April after serving more than eight years in Florida for drug dealing, is working for a Clearwater tire retreading company, using skills he learned in prison. He started work nine days after he was released with the help of a program called PRIDE Enterprises. 



“Now I’m making $9.50 an hour and I’m loving it,” said Hinton, 40. “I got my freedom, my own apartment, a nice car. I feel like I can’t ask for nothing more.” 

On the Net: 

Northern California Service League: http://www.NorCalServiceLeague.org 

PRIDE Enterprises: http://www.pridefl.com 

The Sentencing Project: http://www.sentencingproject.org 

Society for Human Resource Management: http://www.shrm.org