Meghen Yeadon, a recruiter for Stoughton, found part of the solution: a Wisconsin Department of Corrections work-release program for minimum-security inmates.
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.
“Our company is looking for new ways to find pools of people just because of our hiring needs being so high,” Ms. Yeadon said. “It just took them to hear the right sales pitch.”
Other companies are making similar choices. Officials in Wisconsin and other states with similar inmate programs say demand for their workers has risen sharply in the past year. And while most companies may not be ready to turn to inmate labor, there are signs they are increasingly willing to consider candidates with criminal records, who have long faced trouble finding jobs.
The government doesn’t regularly collect data on employment for people with criminal records. But private-sector sources suggest that companies have become more willing to consider hiring them. Data from Burning Glass showed that 7.9 percent of online job postings indicated that a criminal-background check was required, down from 8.9 percent in 2014.
Mike Wynne has seen the change in employer mind-set firsthand. Mr. Wynne runs Emerge Community Development, a Minneapolis nonprofit that helps people with criminal records or other difficulties find jobs. In the past, Mr. Wynne said, companies saw working with Emerge mostly as a form of public…