By Ben Casselman
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
Until recently, someone like Jordan Forseth might have struggled to find work. Mr. Forseth, 28, was released from prison in November after serving a 26-month sentence for burglary and firearm possession. Mr. Forseth, however, had a job even before he walked out of the Oregon Correction Center a free man.