A new way to fill skills shortages
The tech industry faces significant skills shortages, along with low rates of diversity and inclusion. If steady employment reduces recidivism of previously incarcerated individuals, should the tech sector support the removal of criminal records inquiries from employment applications?
New Zealand continues to have one of the highest incarceration rates in the western world. Our prisons house a disproportionate representation of Māori people; 15% of Aotearoa’s general population but accounting for 51% of the prison population.
In the year after release, up to 80% of prisoners can be unemployed, and the impact of a criminal conviction means that even after serving their time according to the justice system, society serves a second sentence which doesn’t allow for true reintegration.
In a seemingly unrelated part of society, the tech talent pool feels so small that one RUSH employee recently called it a ‘talent puddle’. In our rapidly growing sector, available, skilled staff are high in demand but almost out of supply. A recent report from NZ Tech (the technology industry group) names the skills shortage as a crisis which will impact all parts of the economy.
Tech is also a field which scores low on access and diversity. The training for tech careers can be largely out of reach for vulnerable or low socio-economic groups, females and Māori and Pasifika peoples, meaning that there’s a mismatch between the potential talent and those considered ‘skilled.’
Non-profit organisation Take2 looked at these two issues, saw experimentation happening overseas and then brought the model to home shores by offering intensive web development training and ongoing support to incarcerated individuals - but this is only the first part of the solution.
For anyone exiting prison, even if you’ve made an effort to use your time to upskill and change, a key challenge is the impact a criminal conviction makes on your ability to land a job.
Under current NZ law, prospective employers can request a candidate or employee’s relevant criminal history from the Ministry of Justice or get Police vetting information but only if the person agrees in writing. It’s easy to imagine that a candidate denying this request is likely to be met with scrutiny, and unlikely to proceed successfully through the recruitment process.
The Clean Slate Act passed in 2004 means that convictions are automatically concealed under specific eligibility criteria which technically means the individual has no criminal record. However this does not apply to people who have served a custodial sentence such as prison. So while there seem to be ways to make it easier for past offenders to approach the job market, this really isn’t the case, and our recidivism rate is around 50%.
We can see the argument for support of the programme, but removing criminal records inquiries is a significant leap. Our roundtables tried to look at this topic from three relevant perspectives.
Organisations need to look at their policy around criminal conviction checks and decide what’s right for them. A blanket ban for hiring people with criminal convictions was discussed as being regressive, but everyone acknowledged there are occasions where it is necessary and examples of this may be where the nature of the workplace (eg. bank) is maligned with the crime (eg. fraud).
Freelance or remote work is an opportunity for the employer to provide an opportunity to hire a previously incarcerated individual whilst mitigating initial security concerns. Another option is a trial period done remotely, before full workplace integration.
The workplace may also be in a position to provide specific types of professional development or wraparound support, and if a criminal charge is not known then there may be missed opportunities for ensuring that all parties are getting the most out of their contract.
Taking a leaf out of other equal-employment-opportunity initiatives, the Rainbow Tick was raised as an example of organisations signaling their inclusivity which could extend to fair chance employment, as it relates to people with a criminal conviction. There is potential to create an accreditation around hiring policies that open pathways for previously incarcerated individuals, as well as creating a supportive ecosystem for the community of employers to share their experiences and support each other.
Everyone has their own view in relation to the idea of working with someone who has spent time in prison which will be informed by personal experience, media, political views or values. Where one employee sees inspiration and opportunity to become a mentor, someone else may feel jealousy at the perceived imbalance, or even fear.
Not every employee may be able to find peace with working with someone with a criminal record - for example a survivor of a criminal act. Also, people have a right to privacy. And so while a previous criminal conviction may be known to HR, it doesn’t mean that this is disclosed to all employees.
In the instance of the Take2 programme, the existence (not the details) of a conviction is likely to be known, so that an environment of support, education, trust and connection is built. Simply the more time we spend with a person, and the more we know their story, then we can find more ways of relating to one another which reduces the stigma around criminal convictions.
Previously Incarcerated Individuals:
The greatest change to be made by challenging the way in which we approach criminal record checks is to the livelihood of a person with a conviction on their record. The cycle of crime is strong, for example a child with a parent in prison is seven times more likely to also end up in prison. So we can break this cycle by changing the lives of people currently in the system, willing to make a change for the better when they are released.
The stigma of having been a criminal is damaging, and it keeps people stuck without a way to move forward. Programmes like Take2 not only provide the training and support, but will also feed the success stories back into prison where more offenders are exposed to a possible alternative. These changes positively affect not only the individual - but also their partner, children, parents, friends and community.
So do we remove criminal records inquiries?
Instead of removing the checks entirely, the roundtable felt more positive about intentionally building an inclusive, accepting environment that promotes fair chance opportunities. If workplaces can commit to taking a look at their hiring policy and stance on criminal convictions and create room for previously incarcerated individuals, then we can truly impact the cycle of reoffending in this country.
There’s not one right way - this process needs common sense, so it’s up to companies to decide what their version of fair-chance employment looks like.
- get your team onboard with social responsibility
- educate team on the problem statistics, the opportunity and the impact to be made
- allow open discussion so team can share thoughts
- allow private discussion so vulnerable employees can safely raise concerns
- review and update hiring policy if relevant
- create guidelines for what ‘good’ looks like when it comes to inclusion and fair chance hiring
This article first appeared in ‘Connecting for a Better Future: a collection of essays’ in response to the RUSH x AUT Techweek Roundtable Discussions published in September 2021. Read the full whitepaper here.