Looking past anxieties about job-killing automation replacing human workers with robots, the supremely tight US job market is creating job opportunities for Americans who had been considered virtually unemployable in the very recent past. We're talking about people with criminal convictions for violent crimes - murders, armed robbers and others. Some industries - like long-haul trucking, for example - have reached a crisis point, where employers are eager to hire anybody with a pulse, a will and a drivers' license.
And as President Trump's criminal justice reform law is set to release more low-risk offenders on to the streets while simultaneously offering them more opportunities to secure job training and employment, the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday published a long-form feature chronicling the paper's attempt to follow three ex-cons as they searched for employment over the course of a year.
The story showed that, even though at least one of the convicts had only recently been released after spending more than two decades in prison for murder, all three of them managed to find satisfying work. The three men benefited from living in New York State, which recently passed a law making it more difficult for employers to turn away job applicants with criminal records, while also offering tax credits to employers who hire felons.
But if anything, the stories of these three men show just how much work is available in the contemporary economy, even as the work-force participation rate remains mired near all-time lows and average hourly wages have risen only modestly since the recovery from the financial crisis began.
Barry Green, a Brooklyn-born parolee who works on a construction site, told WSJ that he came clean with his boss about the length of his incarceration and the severity of his crimes after a few months on the job.
Shortly after Barry Green got a job manning a gate at a Brooklyn construction site, he started pitching in on other duties. He cleaned the construction site, helped move tools and filled leaking holes. About a month later, Mr. Green felt he had proved his worth, enough to open up about his past.
Mr. Green confided to his boss in April that he had served 24 years in prison for murder and had been paroled five months earlier. He said the admission briefly surprised his supervisor, but then he sent Mr. Green back to work.
"I’m employable," said Mr. Green, 41 years old. "That’s why I felt comfortable going forward."
Despite never having held a job, not having an ID and never having used social media (something that, we imagine, many employers might consider a plus) Green has managed to find and keep a job thanks to his work ethic, he said.
Leaving Sullivan Correctional Facility last year, he didn’t have an ID, physician or bank account, and had never had a full-time job. Technology had changed so much that he felt like he was "traveling to the future."
He’s still working on convincing his family that he is a changed man.
His mother, Lynnette Green, 62, said she tried her best to keep her son out of trouble. "He was hardheaded, and he didn’t listen," she said.
Mr. Green, who dropped out of school in the fourth grade, said he regrets the mistakes he made when he was young. But the man who came out of prison is much different, he said.
"The 40-year-old guy who she got to get to know, I ain’t lazy," he said. "I’m a worker."
While more employers are becoming open to the idea of hiring people with criminal records, some companies - like Koch Industries - have been doing it for decades. Koch recently removed the question on its applications asking about criminal records. Any candidates who do have a criminal record are asked to explain what they have learned from the experience.
Koch Industries, one of the country’s largest private corporations, has been hiring applicants with criminal histories for decades. "They’re hungry, humble and they want a second chance," said Mark Holden, senior vice president of the Wichita, Kan.-based company.
Koch Industries removed the felony checkbox from its job applications in 2015. If someone with a criminal record applies for a position, the company instructs interviewers to ask what they learned from the experience and how they’ve changed.
The current labor market provides a unique opportunity, Mr. Holden said. "There’s such a lack of skilled labor," he said, "so that’s opened the door for a lot of people with criminal records."
Still, security for other employees and customers - as well as the all-important question of legal liability - remain concerns.
Katherine Wylde, chief executive of the Partnership for New York, a business coalition, said security and liability for employees and customers remains a concern. "When you get into violent crime, it gets tricky," she said.
Tony Ramos, who served two months for a misdemeanor assault conviction, said he thought he was "done for" after Yelp rejected the Temple graduate for a job that he was qualified for, citing his criminal record.
"I was devastated," said Mr. Ramos, who graduated from Temple University in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. "I have the credentials, and you guys denied me because of an isolated incident? It’s like, what the heck?"
But Ramos eventually found work as a program director at a community center in the Bronx, a job he says he really enjoys. His boss said that, if the center passed over those with criminal records, they would miss out on "a lot of amazing talent."
Mr. Ramos eventually landed a job as a program director at the Children Arts and Science Workshops Inc., a community center in a Bronx public housing development. The hiring process included a background check and a hearing to discuss his misdemeanor.
"Everyone has a past," said Hanan Al-Bilal, Mr. Ramos’s supervisor. "If I were not to engage any candidates who had contact with the police, I would lose a lot of amazing talent."
Motivated by his experience, Mr. Ramos plans to run for Congress in 2020. "I’m fortunate enough that I have the education and experience that I still landed this job with my record," he said. "But there’s other people not that fortunate."
Randy Rosa, a career criminal who now works at a nonprofit in the South Bronx, said that after a stint or two in prison, convicts start building what he called a "negative resume."
"As you get denied for stuff because of your record, you just get further and further into what you know best, which would be hustling, robbing or stealing," Mr. Rosa said. “And all you’re doing is building a negative résumé.”
While recent legislative efforts are designed to curtail recidivism, many ex-convicts end up back behind bars. About four in nine prisoners released in 2005 in 30 states were arrested at least once in the year following their release, according to a 2018 Justice Department report. Even more—83%—were arrested at least once during the nine years following their release.
Baz Dreisinger, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said felons have few options after leaving prison because of the stigma attached to their convictions.
After their release, "it’s almost like people go through a honeymoon period because you feel like 'I’m free,'" said Ms. Dreisinger, who also teaches inmates. "Then you realize the world has put me in a second-class citizen place."
More so than any government program or criminal justice reform package, nothing prevents recidivism better than finding ex-cons a fulfilling, well-paying job.
Antonio Hendrickson, Mr. Rosa’s boss at the mentorship organization, said many people with backgrounds similar to Mr. Rosa’s want to have steady jobs. “But when you ain’t got no money and nobody’s hiring you...your survival instinct kicks in,” he said.
Last November, Mr. Hendrickson was doing outreach at a probation hearing and overheard Mr. Rosa complaining that a parking garage had rejected him for a position. He hired Mr. Rosa as a mentor.
"Just the everyday getting a job is still difficult for guys and women with felonies," Mr. Hendrickson said. "Something gotta give."
In that sense, Trump has already implemented one of the biggest criminal-reform efforts in recent memory thanks to the Trump economy.