Some Say Untapped Workers Are Plentiful, Could Help Ease N.H.'s Labor Shortage

May 23, 2019

Attorney Donna Brown, in the foreground, says people she works with who have criminal records face many barriers and are eager to get back to work.
Credit NHPR Staff

As employers complain about a labor shortage and a tight job market, they may be overlooking a large group of potential workers that face certain barriers or stigmas – among them, people with criminal records or who are in recovery, recent immigrants, older workers, or people with disabilities.

Attorney Donna Brown does pro bono work at criminal annulment clinics, where people who meet certain requirements can have their records cleared.  Brown joined an Exchange panel on untapped Granite State workers -- part of an Exchange in-depth four-day discussion of workforce challenges.  

(The full conversation can be heard here. Excerpts included here have been edited lightly for clarity.)

“We really meet people who are very motivated, who want to get past their past and get into the labor force, but there are a lot of barriers - certain jobs have licensing requirements that prohibit people with criminal records. Some employers just won’t consider someone with a felony, and that's just it,” Brown said.

Meanwhile, a bill in the state legislature that would make it easier to get certain convictions annulled has met with strong opposition from victims' advocates, as reported in the Union Leader.  SB 311 passed in the Senate in March but has stalled in the House. An amendment offered by the ACLU-NH seeks to make the bill more amenable to victims' advocates.

Another bill, SB 100, which aims to delay employer inquiries into criminal backgrounds (sometimes referred to as "ban the box") -- with certain exceptions --  has passed  in the Senate and, after an amendment, passed in the House this week.  

The opioid crisis has added to an already substantial population of people with criminal records, which by some estimates amounts to hundreds of thousands, Brown said. 

“More people are getting arrested for drug possession, so now they’ve got these convictions on their records,” she said.  

“There is a lot of support out there for these people. It sounds ironic but someone who's on either the drug-court program or on probation, they've got support, “ she said.   

The Merrimack County Diversion program, for instance, helps people get jobs and drivers’ licenses, she said, and takes care of drug testing – an expense that a business might not want to take on.

 "I would understand if I was the person who was hiring somebody -- I would be a little reluctant myself… But I think that it really is important that people give other people second chances especially if they were young, and they just weren't making smart choices. I think that that's really important."   --  Steven Miller, whose troubled family life and addiction issues led to three felony convictions before he was 18. His employer looked past his criminal record when he left prison and hired him. He’s held that job for five years.

With this group in mind, some large companies have signed onto the Fair Chance Business Pledge.

“Some big companies realize this is an untapped group and they're missing out on a lot of workers,” Brown said. “And it’s just good for us as a community; the research shows that people who have jobs are going to be less likely to reoffend. They're going to be less likely to relapse if they've got substance abuse issues.”

Manchester Community Resource Center hosted a NH Bar Association Bro Bono program for people seeking to clear their criminal records.
Credit Ellen Grimm for NHPR

Research has shown that people with criminal backgrounds can actually be model employees because they’re in a sense grateful for being given the chance to work despite their past, Brown said.

And people with disabilities display that same kind of loyalty, says Andrew Houtenville, associate professor of economics and research director at the Intitute on Disability at UNH.

This group represents a wide range of potential workers,  he says, and part of finding them employment can involve helping co-workers overcome a level of discomfort and uncertainty.  

“If someone’s blind, a lot of people don’t want to say the wrong things and do the wrong things,” says Houtenville. “And if there’s an issue of accommodation, how do I deal with that? Do I go to the labor lawyer? Or another group?”

A big help, he says, are certain community groups, such as the Project Search program at Great Bay Community College.

Working with such local community groups can help busineses find untapped labor resources, Houtenville says.  “But only 26 percent of supervisors actually use them to recruit. And so finding new ways to recruit --  to work with community organizations and with local education groups -- is really beneficial. But not many employers are doing it nationally.”

Andrew Houtenville of the UNH Institute of Disability & Todd Fahey of AARP-NH discuss the state's untapped workers.
Credit Ali Oshinskie for NHPR

Todd Fahey, state director for the AARP, says older, experienced workers are also a huge untapped resource.  

“They want to be retrained and in many cases will pay for their own retraining.  And they delight in working with an intergenerational workforce.

There are a lot of these stereotypes we continue to buy into – to our own peril in New Hampshire.  

We’re hovering at 2.4 percent unemployment; we need every person working right now.

 My husband moved from Michigan about 30 years ago and he has always commuted to Massachusetts because that is where the jobs and higher salaries are. He’s in his mid 50’s and is tired of the long commute. He keeps an eye out for jobs, but employers seem to pass over older males with loads of relevant experience, maybe because of past salaries. But he might be willing to work for less, especially since he’d be gaining time with family and not have to pay income tax! Listener Lara, from Londonderry. 

Among the misperceptions, Fahey says, is that older workers don’t work for long and are also expensive.

“We have reams of data to say a lot of older and experienced workers tend to stay in the job longer. The health care costs for that cohort actually has been going down over the years and it's very expensive to hire somebody who doesn't stay. They come in and they leave. And we forget that.

“Most people want to work. There are stunning numbers on how many people want to stay in the workforce -- a full third want to work until 70 or longer. And seven percent never want to retire. And those are massive numbers. The biggest growth of workers in New Hampshire is going to be those between 65 and 75 as the population ages,” Fahey said.  

"I believe that the younger and old can work together. Because I'm 74, doesn’t mean I can’t do something. I might do it a little bit slower. Being in sales for over 50 years, I know how to sell. When you're going to hire somebody right from college – yes, they know the knowledge but to know how and where and when to do all this, you've got to be trained to do it." --  Tony, speaking at 

a recent job fair.

Meanwhile, some older, experienced workers face skepticism when seeking jobs that are below their skill level.  As caller Dick, from Goffsttown, describes: "The recruiter was asking me: 'You look to be older.' Granted, my resume goes back a long way. He asked: 'Why do you want to be a database administrator. Why don’t you want to be a database manager or an IT manager?' My thing is:  I’m at the point where I’m comfortable. I don’t want to move up the ladder.”

Kristine Dudley, workforce development director of Manchester Community College says that kind of contentment can be misinterpreted.  “Sometimes we assume that if someone is comfortable and really happy doing their job and there's no ambition to get ahead,  that they're not a good worker. And that's so not the case….That's exactly where they want to be. And you want to encourage that."

Dudley says the community college works with many immigrants, some of whom have arrived here with a high level of education, including doctors and nurses who are seeking English skills and also certification to get into some of the fields they once worked in.

Many attend the college to learn English, Dudley says. But although the college gets many calls from employers seeking students, they aren’t necessarily asking for immigrant students, she says.  Still, she hears from employers that highly value their immigrant workers.  

Great show, definitely opened my eyes. Will keep all these groups in mind when I am in a position of hiring again. -- Listener, Steve. 

“A lot of our immigrant population, their work ethic is cultural. I was just sitting down a manufacturer who says his immigrant workers work extremely hard for the company. They love what they do. He said that they love being there, and he loves having them. They don't have a desire right now to move into a different position or move up - they're really happy doing what they're doing, and he respects that."