A rapidly tightening labor market is forcing companies to consider workers they once would have turned away. That is providing opportunities to people who have long faced barriers to employment, such as criminal records, disabilities or prolonged bouts of joblessness, reports the New York Times. In Dane County, Wi., where the unemployment rate was just 2 percent in November, demand for workers has grown so intense that manufacturers are hiring inmates at full wages to work in factories even while they serve their prison sentences. The U.S. economy hasn’t experienced this kind of fierce competition for workers since the late 1990s and early 2000s, the last time the unemployment rate — currently 4.1 percent — was this low.
Until recently, someone like Jordan Forseth might have struggled to find work. Forseth, 28, was released from prison in November after serving 26 months for burglary and firearm possession. He had a job before he left prison. Nearly every weekday last year, Forseth rode a van from a minimum-security prison outside Madison, Wi., to Stoughton Trailers, where he and other inmates earned $14 an hour wiring taillights and building sidewalls for semitrailers. After his release, Forseth remained at Stoughton. Work-release programs have often been criticized for exploiting inmates by forcing them to work grueling jobs for pay that is well below minimum wage. The Wisconsin program is voluntary, and inmates are paid market wages. State officials say the program gives inmates a chance to build up some savings, learn vocational skills and prepare for life after prison. States with similar inmate programs say demand for their workers has risen sharply in the past year. Most companies may not be ready to turn to inmate labor, but there are signs they are increasingly willing to consider candidates with criminal records.