I have no problem hiring ex-offenders. But they’re being let down

<span>Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP</span>
Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

My company is hoping to hire a part-time person to implement and support some of the software applications we sell. Like most small business owners, finding someone isn’t easy in this tight labor market, despite all the recent tech industry layoffs. I can’t afford to pay what some of these people earn – or were earning – in Silicon Valley and therefore my choices are limited. So, what to do?

How about hiring someone with a criminal record?

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Large corporations including JP Morgan Chase, American Airlines, AT&T and CVS have been doing it for years. State and federal prison systems offer all sorts of opportunities for employers to hire people who were formerly incarcerated. It’s not a bad bet either: studies – like this one – show that people with criminal records are no more likely to quit or be fired than anyone else.

States like Iowa and cities like Philadelphia offer cash incentives to employers who hire ex-convicts. The federal government also offers a very generous tax credit – the Work Opportunity Tax Credit – for hiring people who recently got out of prison. A number of non-profits like Honest Jobs, CareerAddict, 2ndChances4Felons and the Women’s Prison Association connect employers to prospective employees with criminal records or offer programs that help the process. The Department of Labor offers assistance through its CareerOneStop platform.

You pay your dues and should be allowed to live your life. Most of my clients feel the same. So does the general public

I wouldn’t have a problem filling my open position with an ex-felon or someone with a criminal record. People mess up. Some more seriously than others. But you pay your dues and should be allowed to try to live your life. Most of my clients feel the same. And so does the general public. In fact, a person’s criminal history has become so trivial that although employers can ask a prospective candidate about it during pre-employment screenings or background checks, many states do not allow that employer to discriminate based on their findings.

So no, I don’t care if a candidate for my company’s open position has a criminal record or is an ex-felon. But I do care about something that, to me, is even more important.

Can they read?

It’s one thing for all of these government programs and non-profit organizations to help ex-felons secure employment. But are they even qualified?

There are 10m open jobs in the US – hence the tight labor market – but employers are primarily looking for skilled workers. Most of my clients, like me, need workers who have knowledge. And if they don’t have the knowledge, they need to be able to learn, study and research. You can’t do this if you don’t read.

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Many studies, like this one from 2003 by the Urban Institute, found that about 70% of offenders and ex-offenders are high school dropouts. About half are “functionally illiterate”, meaning they can’t read above a fourth-grade level.

Worse, statistics show that 85% of all juveniles who interface with the juvenile court system are essentially illiterate. Penal institution records show that inmates have a 16% chance of returning to prison if they receive literacy help, as opposed to 70% who receive no help. I can’t hire someone – or even teach them the skills my company requires – if they don’t have a high school level of literacy. Being illiterate is a complete non-starter.

Some of the big companies – and good for them – have the resources to help these ex-convicts learn these skills. But small businesses like mine, which employ more than half of the country’s workers, don’t have the ability to do this. So what can be done?

Governments and non-profits should be investing in programs to get prisoners educated on the basics of reading and math.

The answer is literacy. Don’t pay me to hire ex-felons. Pay to get them literate. People in prison need to learn how to read, period. Instead of tax credits and other incentives for businesses to hire, governments and non-profits should be investing in programs to get prisoners educated on the basics of reading and math first. That’s the priority. Because once someone is at a proficient level of education, he or she can then learn the rest. But they can’t do that if they can’t read an instruction manual or study for a Microsoft certification.

That’s what I’m looking for before hiring someone out of prison. I need people who can read. Unfortunately, that’s not what the system is producing.