With the state estimating Montana’s workforce will increase annually by 3,900 workers over the next 10 years, a Job Service specialist said Missoula employers are more and more open to hiring a felon as he or she transitions from prison back into the community.

“I tell people that employers become more open-minded as the labor force shrinks in Missoula,” Chery Sabol, workforce consultant with the Missoula Job Service, told 16 participants at an alternative workforce training session Wednesday.

“But I really do feel the tide has turned in Missoula and employers are more apt to listen to – or at least consider – the possibility of hiring somebody with a record,” Sabol added. 

The Missoula Job Service Employers’ Council, a nonprofit public-private partnership that acts as an advisory council to the Job Service, hosted Wednesday's workshop. Engaged employers and Job Service experts attended.

“Employers are hiring for attitude and they’re willing to train,” she said, although more local small business owners are needed to participate.  

Typically, strong economic growth and tight labor markets lead to strong labor force growth as wages increase and other workplace improvements motivate nonworkers to join the labor force, according to the Montana Department of Labor and Industry.

However, Sabol told Job Service advisory council members that growth of the labor force is projected to slow down through 2025 – mainly due to an aging population and a lack of young people to replace retirees.

“The numbers say you’ll probably not see much change in the labor force until 2025,” she told the group, which included human resources managers from the engineering, hospital, retail, insurance and education sectors.

As baby boomer retirements taper off starting in 2025, the state expects the labor force growth to eventually outpace employment growth.

Missoula’s unemployment rate was 2.6 percent in August, slightly lower than the statewide rate of 2.9 percent, according to numbers released on Sept. 20. 

The state reported that projected employment and labor force levels suggest the unemployment rate should start to increase back to normal levels by 2028.  

About 15 local employers participated in a Job Service job fair a few weeks ago. With a dearth of applicants, Sabol suggested that employers – especially new human resources personnel and smaller local employers – look at alternative solutions to filling open jobs.

“We advocate quite a bit for people to consider hiring people with records,” Sabol said. “We give them numbers like 95 percent of people who are incarcerated are going to return to the community and are going to have to work. So how can we not we hire them and expect them not to cause problems?”

She encouraged employers to remember that 70 percent of people who have committed crimes committed non-violent or non-sexual offenses.

“So they’re not the big, scary serial killer people we think about when we think about hiring felons,” Sabol said, trying to dispel the myth.

That’s where crucial support systems like the Missoula Pre-Release Treatment Center and the Job Service come into play.

Thomas Smith, Job Service workforce specialist, said one local bakery manager was upset when an employee, a felon, failed to show up for work. But instead of firing the hire, the manager simply picked up the phone and communicated with the pre-release center to basically give the hire a second chance.

“There’s an added layer of accountability there, to make sure somebody’s doing their job,” said Smith “It also gives them the opportunity to get to know somebody.” 

Sabol said not only are construction jobs plenty in Missoula and the surrounding area, but so are traditional entry-level jobs like food service positions and even dental assistant, for which employers will train.

“I really feel that the community is opening up to this idea a little more – that the felons who are working in the community have gotten a second chance,” said Sabol. “Sometimes they fail horribly, just like the rest of the population out there.”

Again, more employers will offer on-the-job training.

“For so many of our jobs, the employer will train the right person for the job,” Sabol added. “It’s not just in construction; it’s pretty widespread.” 

Sabol and Smith always ask the employers on their list, “Would you hire a felon?” when screening them for potential job leads for Job Service job-hunters. Answers vary, but Jen Buckley, Probation and Parole officer, said the key is sitting down and talking about potential fears of having a felon in the workplace. 

As felons struggle with transitioning from prison to society, often they have to deal with a divorce, lack of housing and mental health issues while learning how to job-hunt. 

“Be open-minded,” Buckley said to employers and invited them to call her any time with questions. “Everybody is scared of felons. But talk about what you’re scared of. We can talk about that.”

Buckley said Probation and Parole guides those transitioning back to society about how to be respectful to employers while employing strict rules for the ex-offenders. The pre-release center and the job service both offer extensive job-training and life-skills lessons for ex-offenders to readjust and prepare for the work force.

Sabol shared the Montana Department of Corrections’ top 10 offenses for male offenders to help dispel the typical myth of the felon profile: 

Criminal possession of dangerous drugs, criminal endangerment, theft, felony DUI, burglary, assault with a weapon, partner/family member assault, criminal possession with intent to distribute, criminal distribution of drugs and failure to register.

The top 10 offenses for female offenders are: criminal possession of dangerous drugs, criminal endangerment, theft, felony DUI, criminal distribution of drugs, criminal child endangerment, forgery, criminal possession with intent to distribute, burglary and bail jumping. 

Smith reminded employers that a Work Opportunity Tax Credit (WOTC) is available through the Montana Department of Labor and Industry. The program assists individuals who are facing barriers transitioning to gainful employers and can save Montana employers up to $9,600 per qualifying new hire during his or her first year of employment.

The number of qualifying new hires is unlimited. For-profit and tax-exempt organizations hiring job seekers from about a dozen targeted groups may apply. For more information, contact Christy Robbins at the Montana Department of Labor and Industry at crobbins@mt.gov and 406-444-9046 or 800-726-0615. 

“There’s such great resources in Missoula and we’re really lucky,” said Tawna Larson, treatment coordinator at Missoula Pre-Release.