Sunday, January 28, 2018
A rapidly tightening labor market is forcing companies across the country 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. "When the unemployment rate is high, you can afford to not hire anyone who has a criminal record, you can afford to not hire someone who's been out of work for two years," said Lawrence H. Summers, the Harvard economist and former Treasury secretary. "When the unemployment rate is lower, employers will adapt to people rather than asking people to adapt to them."
In Dane County, Wis., where the unemployment rate was just 2 percent in November, demand for workers has grown so intense that manufacturers are taking their recruiting a step further: hiring inmates at full wages to work in factories even while they serve their prison sentences. These companies were not part of traditional work-release programs that are far less generous and rarely lead to jobs after release.
Work-release programs have often been criticized for exploiting inmates by forcing them to work grueling jobs for pay that is often well below minimum wage. But 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. Ms. Yeadon initially encountered skepticism from supervisors. But as the local labor pool kept shrinking, it became harder to rule out a group of potential -- albeit unconventional -- workers.
The American 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.
The tight job market hasn't yet translated into strong wage growth for American workers. But there are tentative signs that, too, could be changing -- particularly for lower-paid workers who were largely left out of the early stages of the economic recovery. Walmart on Thursday said it would raise pay for entry-level workers beginning in February; its rival Target announced a similar move last fall.
Employers are also becoming more flexible in other ways. Burning Glass Technologies, a Boston-based software company that analyzes job-market data, has found an increase in postings open to people without experience. And unemployment rates have fallen sharply in recent years for people with disabilities or without a high school diploma.
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