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About 20 million Americans have a felony record, and people with a prison record will tell you it's hard to get a job because companies are wary of hiring them. But that might be changing thanks to a tight job market. With more employers looking for workers, that means more opportunities for former felons. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.
JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: A few years ago, when Robby Grant was looking for work, he got used to doors being shut in his face.
ROBBY GRANT: Your resume is very impressive, but because of you being a felon, we're going to choose to go in a different direction.
GARSD: Grant had been a salesperson in Michigan for years. He developed a drug addiction and started stealing. It ended up on his criminal record. This was during the recession. In Michigan, unemployment had peaked at just under 15%. Grant could not find a job.
GRANT: You kind of get to a place where you feel like maybe you don't deserve. You're not going to ever get a second chance. You're never going to get a break to redeem yourself.
GARSD: He spiraled into depression and further into drug use. He broke into someone's house, which is how he ended up here at the Richard Handlon Correctional Facility in Michigan. He's been serving almost three years. When he gets out in just a few months, he'll be facing a very different job market. Nationwide, unemployment is extremely low. In Michigan, it's at 4.1%. Prison officials say companies are more open to hiring people convicted of felonies. And they're actually reaching out to people like Robby in prison about potential jobs in construction, furniture making and truck driving.
HEIDI WASHINGTON: I mean, I've been here 21 years. I never thought I would have seen this.
GARSD: Heidi Washington is the director of the Michigan Department of Corrections, which boasts a training program called Vocational Village. It trains about 400 prisoners at a time. Towards the end of their sentence, they get certified in trades like carpentry and machine operating.
This is where Grant studies carpentry. It looks more like a high school woodshop than a prison. By the time he gets out, it's pretty likely he'll get a job. Washington says just in the last few months...
WASHINGTON: About 95% of everybody who left Vocational Village had a job before they left.
GARSD: That's no small feat. Difficulty finding employment is one reason why, if you've been locked up, there is about a 40% chance you'll be going back in the next few years.
REBECCA VALLAS: We're creating a permanent underclass of workers who don't have the same opportunities as others.
GARSD: Rebecca Vallas is with the left-leaning Center for American Progress. She says this especially affects communities of color - 33% of black men have felony convictions. The Center for American Progress is currently promoting the Clean Slate policy to automatically erase people's records after a certain amount of years. Reintegrating people coming out of prison is an issue that has created unlikely allies across the political spectrum. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump have made it one of their main causes. Libertarians Charles and David Koch have championed it. Mark Holden, senior vice president of Stand Together, an anti-poverty group funded by the Koch brothers, says now is the perfect time to change things.
MARK HOLDEN: Now that there is such a need for skilled labor in particular, that stigma is wearing off. And it gets back to the whole idea that when employers see the need for more labor and they see that out there there's people coming out of prison who have those skills, they're going to be willing to take a chance.
GARSD: But just how big is the need for someone fresh out of prison? On a cloudy spring morning, I drive to a job fair for carpenters in Detroit. It's packed.
CHRISTOPHER DICKERSON: I don't care what your background is. I don't care where you came from. I don't care what color you are. I don't care as long as you come to work every single day and give me everything that you can give me.
GARSD: Christopher Dickerson is a senior manager at a construction company called Manic. And he is a little frenzied when he talks about how badly he needs workers.
DICKERSON: The projects just keep coming in. I mean, we have to pass some things up because, well, we just don't have the manpower to do most of the stuff.
GARSD: While he works on recruiting, I speak to one of his new employees, Ichard Oden.
ICHARD ODEN: I always wanted to be a carpenter ever since I was little because when I was younger, I used to build basketball rims, clubhouses.
GARSD: But things took a very bad turn in 1999. Oden was barely out of his teenage years when he was convicted of kidnapping and second-degree murder.
ODEN: I was in my 12th grade year when I got locked up.
GARSD: Oden spent two decades behind bars. As his release date approached, he faced the conundrum of so many inmates - a grown man with no skill set heading back into a city in dire need of workers. He was given a career test. It found he had a high aptitude for...
ODEN: Being a cop, but we know that was out the window (laughter).
GARSD: He also tested well for carpentry, which is what he studied at the Vocational Village. An entry-level carpenter can make around 16 bucks an hour. When Oden got out of prison in February, the next day he contacted the carpenters union. And about a week later, they sent him to the construction site.
ODEN: Of course, I was nervous (laughter) because it's the first time in 20 years, like, I'm in society.
GARSD: But Oden says he kept thinking about this thing, which was often on his mind while he was in prison.
ODEN: I never pictured myself in prison all the time. I always pictured myself out of prison. So prison wasn't in me, but being free was, so I always thought about that. So when I went to the job site and he asked me - he like, what can you do?
GARSD: Whatever you want me to do, Oden responded. He got hired that day. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, Detroit, Mich.
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