Solving the Skills Gap Through Prison to Workforce Pipeline


What if I told you that right now business has the ability to solve today’s skills gap? Would you believe me? The fact is, we do. And it all starts with changing the way we think about, view and support people with criminal backgrounds. As the Chief Social Responsibility Officer for a company that trains and hires incarcerated women, I know this: if we broaden the lens we use to identify talent and future potential, we will enable our companies to flourish, build stronger communities and boost the economy. How amazing would these results be on a year-end performance review?

A study by Korn Ferry Institute predicts the existing talent shortage will reach its worst levels in 2030, when an expected 85.2 million job openings will go unfilled worldwide. Solving this issue is going to take looking beyond traditional talent pools and arming new people with the skills our businesses need.

Turn Opportunity Cost into Gain

Today, there are 2.3 million people in our nation’s prisons and jails—a 700 percent increase since the 1970s. Changes in law and policy, like the failed war on drugs and mandatory minimum sentences, explain most of this increase.

America now houses roughly the same number of people with criminal records as it does four-year college graduates. So, if you know someone with a college degree, which we all do, it’s safe to assume we also know someone with a criminal record.

In any given year, about 700,000 adults leave prison and reenter society, and they all need employment. Yet 75 percent will remain unemployed one year after release, thanks to the barriers that society and business have put up to make meaningful work a pipe dream for this community. With joblessness the biggest predictor of recidivism, close to 70 percent will return to prison after just three years. Talk about a broken model!

Now let’s consider that majority of those incarcerated will spend about five to ten years in prison. That’s a lot of time they could spend learning marketable business and technical skills, enabling us to create a thriving prison to workforce pipeline that solves the growing skills gap.

Embracing a New Talent Pool

I’m asking you to forget the Hollywood images and stereotypes that have filled our heads about people in prison. As with all things, the reality is much different. Mass incarceration is the result of reactionary measures, leading to failed policies that impacted mostly women and men born on the lower rings of the economic ladder. And it’s created an economic crisis for our country.

I want you to see what I personally experience inside prison walls: talent and potential. I see women who want to prove they can be better than the worst decision they made. I also know that this population offers companies more commitment once they are in their roles than any other group. They are eager to learn, have the ability to learn complex subjects and, once released, use the skills we give them to rebuild their lives and ensure they never return to prison.

What I’m proposing isn’t exactly a novel idea. It’s already being done. Televerde has been investing in incarcerated women since 1994 with remarkable business and economic results. There’s also The Last Mile, a program that’s helping incarcerated men and women build relevant skills in tech so they can more easily transition to productive employment once out of prison. So, business is catching on but we need to expand our efforts and really commit—invest in skills-based prison programs and pledge to hire after release—if we want real change.

In my experience, the most successful companies do two things really well:

1) They can shift from traditional to unconventional ways to run their companies.

2) They turn crisis into opportunity.

It’s going to take a combination of both to solve the skills gap and end the revolving prison door.

The right talent isn’t going to magically appear. We must create a new generation of qualified employees and be proactive in our efforts. Doing so will end chronic underemployment, build a pipeline of future talent and lead to a thriving, growing economy.


This post is part of a series for Second Chance Month, which highlights the need to improve re-entry for citizens returning to society and reduce recidivism. One of the primary ways to do this is by providing an opportunity for gainful employment. To sign the pledge and access the toolkit with information on how to create second chances at your company, visit  


The SHRM Blog does not accept solicitation for guest posts.

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