Guest Column

Returning citizens offer employers ‘untapped talent’

October 4, 2019
| By Jason Kehr |
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Is your company experiencing a talent shortage? If so, you are not alone. Recruiting, developing and retaining talent is a major issue across our region and something that Talent 2025, a group of more than 120 CEOs, is working on.

What if I told you there is a virtually untapped pool of extremely hard workers just looking for an opportunity? Such a pool does exist; they’re returning citizens. These individuals either have a criminal history or are coming home from a correctional facility and transitioning back into the community.

Returning citizens are not as rare as you may think. By age 23, 1 in 3 Americans has been arrested, and in the United States, more than 70 million people have a criminal record. The only thing keeping many companies from tapping into this large pool of talent is a greater awareness of the benefits when employers do.

Returning citizens are routinely denied interview opportunities simply because they check the box on the application disclosing they have a felony on their record. If these candidates are able to land an interview, the gaps in their work history may prevent companies from giving them serious consideration.

In the event that a returning citizen is hired, they still may struggle with the challenges many others face to stay employed, like access to reliable transportation or finding affordable housing. However, despite these challenges, an open mind and some creativity can make it possible for both companies and these candidates to succeed.

My company, Valley City Electronic Recycling, has employed returning citizens in various capacities since our inception 14 years ago. What started out as simply trying to do the right thing has evolved into a testimonial for the business case to hire returning citizens. These individuals have become some of our most loyal, dedicated and hard-working employees. 

Our retention rate has actually increased in the segment of our business that utilizes this talent. Our corporate culture also has benefited as people with different life experiences and backgrounds bring a unique perspective that enhances our corporate culture. My company is not alone in realizing the benefits to employers. Johns Hopkins Hospital reports that the returning citizens it has hired are “good, loyal, solid workers.”

Just like with traditional employees, employing returning citizens doesn’t come without issues. Flexibility is required just as it would be for any employee. In my experience, finding and keeping reliable transportation is one of the biggest issues returning citizens face.

Our most feasible solutions for this are to make sure our facility is on a bus line and to make bus passes available to employees should they run into a transportation issue. Returning employees also may need time off for court appointments, not unlike a time commitment an employee might need to visit the dentist. The stories may be unique, but the universal importance of positive employer support remains.

Ultimately, you will find that giving this pool of untapped talent an opportunity will not force you to run your business any differently. However, it will give you the possibility of increasing your productivity and retention rates while improving your corporate culture. I encourage you to join the more than 500 West Michigan companies that are giving returning citizens a second chance, an action that can benefit your company, the employees and our entire region.

Jason Kehr is president of Valley City Electronic Recycling, a certified B Corp located in Kentwood.

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