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Recruiting outside the box

Somehow, the chronic shortage of workers seems to be getting worse, with many dealers reporting that it’s harder than ever to attract, hire, and retain good people. This month’s Real Issue survey question comes from a dealer who realizes that what they’re doing to bring on new people just isn’t working, and they need to do something different if they want different results. This dealer asked for suggestions and insights from dealers who have experience with outside-the-box recruiting strategies, including hiring “returning citizens”—people convicted of felonies who’ve served their time.

More than 200 LBM Journal readers responded to this month’s brief Real Issues survey. Of those, more than 60% were from lumberyards and building material dealers. Since the question asked about hiring people who’d served time in prison, we first wanted to know how many companies hire people with either misdemeanor or felony convictions. As the chart below page indicates, just over 68% of respondents’ companies hire people with misdemeanors. Of those, 34% also hire people with felony records.

Next, we asked readers to advise the dealer who wrote in asking for help. How would you advise this LBM dealer from the Central U.S.?

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“Like so many dealers, we’re chronically understaffed, and even though we’ve raised our starting wages to be competitive in our market, we’ve really been struggling to attract candidates. Since what we’re doing isn’t working, we’ve come to the realization that we need to get creative and venture beyond our comfort zone. I know that some companies have had success hiring ‘returning citizens’—people convicted of felonies who have served their time. We’d love to learn insights from any dealers who are doing (or have tried) this in case we go that route. Plus, we would love to hear about any other outside-the-box methods that dealers are using to bring good people on board. All suggestions are welcome and appreciated!”


“This would certainly be a case-by-case thing for me. There may be some crimes which would be difficult to overcome, yet others that may be acceptable. It would also depend on the position I’m hiring for and the impact an individual could potentially have on the business. I’d certainly want a real understanding of the individual’s desire to re-enter the world of employment.”

“We have had very positive experiences hiring ‘returning citizens.’ They have been extremely appreciative to be given an opportunity to become a contributing member of society. We do make sure what the crime was. Violent offenders are not high on our list, but we will take a look. They have paid their debt to society and with no ability to get a job, recidivism is almost a sure thing.”

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“We started working with a recruiting company that’s very aggressive and persistent with how they search for candidates. We are paying about $1,000 per month as a retainer plus a fee once we hire a candidate they find, but we’ve had amazing success so far. We’ve hired people that we could never have found on our own with social media posts, word of mouth, etc. Also, we’ve recently been introduced to a regional program that connects us with vets, retiring military, and their spouses.”

“We do background checks on all new hires. There are definite crimes that will immediately disqualify someone, but we don’t make decisions until we see official reports.”

“We’re looking for computer savvy employees and we will work on teaching them the industry.”

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“We have been using temp agencies for more of our hiring and seeing if things work out short term (three months) to see if we should continue long term. I’m sure we give the temp agencies parameters on the background check, but what exceptions do we make for a great employee? We’ve also found that no one is applying for a job unless they know someone who works here. Oddly enough, the temp agencies seem to have a steady stream of people. The newer work force appears to not want to look for employment and are okay with an agency finding work for them.”

“Increase of wages and quarterly bonus payouts based on conversion costs have helped keep our existing yard employees. We offer time-of-service payouts, we don’t micromanage, and sales bonuses all are keeping our office staff in place. As far as getting new employees, we pay bonuses, offer great benefits, and it doesn’t seem to make much of a difference. There just are not enough people looking for work in our area. With a lot of jobs available, I think people have a lot of choices. So just like in sales, the best thing to do is keep the people you have happy, and plan to stay lean.”

“We only hire misdemeanor criminals.”

“How do we connect with all of the displaced Ukrainians? They need help, and we need help.”

“Most of us get caught up into the world of digital recruiting. We rely on Indeed, Facebook, etc. to convey our grass roots needs. This industry is grass roots to the core. Many people in need of employees forget that there are a

lot of Blue Collar Bobs out there that are faithfully working that 7-3:30 gig and know nothing of the opportunity that could exist just around the corner. Much of our industry can pay $40-50K in year one to a greenhorn that will simply show up and be a sponge and learn the processes and materials.

Furthermore, with a little fortitude from that individual, they could be working towards a six-figure career in no time. All of this without a single bit of advanced education! This industry is unique in so many facets; once you learn it you can thrive from the benefits. Finding that pocket of people is the trick—that 35-50-year-old systematic worker who is not overachieving and might just want a little bit more in life.”

“What does it say about someone who is not willing to offer second chances?”

“We work and live in area that has had a population explosion over the last five years. It has made it really difficult to hire anyone who doesn’t already live in the area due to a major housing shortage. We are now working with property managers to try to supply housing for candidates, and are thinking about offering hiring bonuses. Another solution we’ve talked about is paying an outside hiring manager to help us find quality candidates.”

“My two hardest working, most dependable yard guys both have felonies and served time. They are always on time, never call off, and genuinely care about what they do each day. When a lot of people told them ‘no’ and we said ‘let’s give it a try,’ it meant a lot to them and you can see it in their effort.”

“I believe it is an owner’s decision based on their need and their trust in choosing the right person. With no experience in hiring convicted felons, I would not be comfortable. It is also important to consider your employees’ level of comfort.”

“We are hiring more part-time staff. We find there are more people willing to work part time. We are even hiring employees that are juniors in high school and working out their schedule when they are seniors and have a lighter school schedule.”

“We have one convicted felon here now, and multiple people from drug halfway houses, with checkered pasts. Some are good, some are bad, but the good ones are good.”

“Look at each candidate as an individual. The days of blanket policies are gone. Just because someone has a checkered past doesn’t mean their future isn’t bright. Trust your gut with people and take a (calculated) risk on someone you feel might be a good fit.”

“We have been more likely to hire someone with a criminal history than we have in the past. We have also done the H2B visa program and are starting to see some success with the process. While it takes time, sticking with it seems like it is going to pay off.”

“Try it. Certainly offer an in-person interview.”

“Reputable addiction rehab programs also provide an opportunity to attract qualified and motivated candidates.”

“The type of criminal offense can certainly preclude us from considering a candidate or returning employee, but there’s often a lot of value in people with a marked background. Additionally, hiring efforts can no longer be passive. Active recruitment is often required now. Start with tapping into your current staff and asking them for referrals and compensating them for new hires who stay 3+ months. Use online tools to seek out potential candidates who work at companies similar to yours or have experience in the roles which you need to fill. Make first contact and have a plan in place to court them that doesn’t just involve more money. First interviews should aim to determine what levers would compel that individual person.”

“I think you need to be careful…a good professional interviewer would probably enhance your success rate.”

“We run criminal background checks on all new hires before extending a final job offer. This gives applicants with a prior conviction a chance to explain the circumstances if they wish to do so. A felony conviction won’t necessarily disqualify them from being hired, but the nature of and circumstances surrounding the felony do inform whether or not the applicant qualifies for a particular position (a finance-related conviction will most likely disqualify someone from being hired in our accounting department). We currently have an excellent employee in a customer service role who was very upfront in disclosing and discussing a prior conviction. Being open and honest and the ability to learn from one’s mistakes and make positive life changes are important qualities in an employee. In another situation, we had a potential hire who did not disclose a felony conviction on his background check authorization, and when a conviction did surface on his record that gave us cause for concern, he chose not to elaborate and instead withdrew his application. This was probably for the best.”

“Offer an incentive for referrals to current employees, to get some good people to apply. Make it a two-step process: Part up front if a referred person is hired, and the balance after a reasonable time of staying on the job.”

“We partner with a Salvation Army program for substance abuse and a local inmate program that helps reacclimate people to the workforce. So far, we have had good results with both. While we have some people who relapse or don’t work out, most are eager for a second chance and are hard workers. The biggest issue we face with these employees seems to be reliable transportation to and from work. The Salvation Army facility is within walking distance of our largest store, which helps tremendously.

“While pay is important and ensuring that your wages are competitive, the most significant factor causing people to leave seems to be a lack of accountability and leadership. Employees don’t leave their jobs. They leave managers. I have worked in the construction industry (industrial, commercial, and residential) on every level, from HR to CEO. Many employees who leave a job say it wasn’t the money but the fact that their managers did not appreciate them, and the harder they worked, the more work they had to do, while lazy workers were not held accountable.

“Another complaint is harmful or toxic employees. They are like cancer and will spread their bad attitudes to other employees. The most important thing to remember is employees will only rise to the height you set the bar. Unfortunately, far too many companies put it low and settle for mediocrity. We have started doing more to encourage and provide opportunities for employees to spend time around each other outside of the day-to-day stress of work. This is to help different locations get to know all team members and to help all employees connect in a more relaxed atmosphere. This allows them to offer more grace and acceptance to each other during the workday—for example, an employee-only bowling night. The buzzword for this is Team Building.”

“We struggled for over a year to fill open positions at all levels. We realized our customers were going to be impacted negatively if something didn’t change. We evaluated our wages and adjusted all areas upwards. We began intense Facebook and other social media advertising to put a face on our company and the opportunity for local people to see the value of working close to home and growing with us. We have hired a bank employee, a former office manager of a medical office, and a certified welder looking for steady employment. My dad ran a sawmill for many years and partnered with the state of Florida penal system, which operated a work release program for felons seeking to change their lives. It worked for him. Outside the box sometimes is the place to look.”

“We use the work release program through our local prison system, but nonviolent felonies only. We also found a long-term drug rehab facility that also has a work release program. We’ve found both have worked well, and employees are driven to us and picked up. No more worrying about being late or showing up under the influence. They have good attitudes, as they would rather be here than in the facility. It’s not perfect, some have not made it, but overall, it has been a good out-of-the-box option.”

“In this case, you need to be solutions-orientated. While there can be trepidation in hiring people who have committed a felony, depending on the felony, you should shy away from discriminating based on their past. You have a problem, and there seems to be a solution. Be wise in your vetting, but don’t judge a book by its cover.”

“We have had no success in hiring ‘returning citizens.’ Spreading the word through salespeople that call on us and our competitors has worked in the past for us.”

“Walk carefully in this effort. Paper crimes and theft would lead to questions of trust and integrity. Crimes of violence lead to questions of safety. But everyone makes mistakes and still might be considered for certain jobs.”

“Let’s be real, folks. I have people working for me who are lost in life, have no ambition to improve, just want a paycheck, constantly moan and groan, and are simply a warm body to do no-skill jobs. I would jump at a felon who has paid his debt to society and wants a career helping others while helping themselves.”

“At this time, we will consider hiring ‘returning citizens’ on a case-by-case basis. The type of conviction and job we are filling both have an impact on our evaluation hiring process.”

“No matter the decision, you take ownership as the world we now live in is in turmoil and it is hard to say whom you can trust and not trust. Whether a convicted criminal has truly learned their lesson is not something that can be predicted. For you to employ someone with a history is something that you and only you can determine is right for your business. You may be better off hiring someone with a green card, but again that is sketchy now, too. There is no good answer to any labor force issues.”

“We have modified our previous ‘no felonies considered’ rule in the past several years and have had good success with folks with old, mostly drug-related felonies that seem to have grown up and are anxious to start a new life. We have also recently hired several Afghan refugees and that has been a home run. The language barrier is a challenge but can be overcome. The work ethic has been outstanding from the groups we’ve hired (over 40 in the company).”

“We have hired ‘returning citizens’ in the past with both good and bad results, but mostly positive. We feel that you need to proceed cautiously. Some have paid the price for their mistakes and are eager to move forward. Some have a chip on their shoulder and feel they are entitled. You must make a clear determination during the interview process. Additionally, you need to know the crime that caused the time. For example, a thief should not be a delivery driver but could be okay in the manufacturing facility. Regardless, a returning citizen needs more supervision.”

“We recently hired someone in our HR department who currently devotes 100% of their time to recruiting for our open positions. They have only been on board for a month, but this move has helped a lot so far.”

“We’ve been recruiting on LinkedIn and Indeed more recently and are having some luck with decent candidates. A lot of retaining comes from the atmosphere. Are people heard/seen? Do they feel welcome as a newbie? Are they able to ask questions? Is there someone who can train them without the long-term employee feeling overwhelmed with their workload while training? Do they see their path of success? Have they caught the company vision and mission early on?”

“Referrals from close people, recruiting heavily at trade shows and local consortiums, and if you haven’t started, recruit heavily at trade schools and high schools.”

“As a department manager I see this happening around me and the suggestion I would put forward to my employer if asked would be: The best offense is a good defense. Make sure you build a good culture, so you don’t lose people and make your staffing shortage worse. What levels / positions are you struggling to hire for? If it’s sales, do you have a good person in your yard who knows products and is good with dealing with customers that you could promote? It might be easier to replace a different position than the one you are struggling to fill.”

“Raise wages even more. The people are the lifeblood of any business. Provide them with a living wage and they will be grateful. In the end, answer the question: Do you care more about the people working at your company, OR the elusive bottom line, that in the end benefits far fewer than having good working conditions? I would also always allow people with non-violent offenses to get hired but have more screening for those that committed violent offenses. Protect the people that make your business what it is, but don’t ostracize those that have made mistakes.”

“It is simple. If you raise your wages to meet the minimum pay, then you were already behind. Once behind then you are playing catch-up. By playing catch-up, you have years of reputation for low pay and very hard work to overcome. Just raising the pay to the meet the minimum in your area alone is not near enough. It can be done, and it is not hard, but it does require some thinking outside of the box. I wonder how the rest of the company is viewed in this scenario.”

“Use a staffing agency.”

“We continue to have huge successes by partnering with local school districts and hiring part-time interns. Many students in our area have access to work study programs that allow students to work half days during their senior year of high school. Teachers, administrators, and counselors want to see their students succeed; start by showing them all the things our industry has to offer to their students.”


“Diversity of all sorts, including people convicted of crimes who have done their sentences, improves the workplace. Like every other employee, people with a record need to be managed to ensure a safe and inviting culture. Any person who is unable to contribute to a safe and inviting culture needs to move on to an opportunity somewhere else. Your company needs to be such a good place to work that people won’t leave over a few dollars.”

“We have had success offering people a second chance after serving their time and/or getting clean and sober. Many of these individuals have been with us for many years, and have grown, changed, started families, purchased homes, and are grateful someone gave them a chance to excel. And we are grateful to have them on our team.”

“We’re participating with our local prison and technical college on a re-entry program to hire prisoners. The real problem is the covid relief and healthy stay-at-home program that is still paying rent and mortgages for non-working people, keeping them out of the workforce. They can get cash paying jobs and free rent which disincentivizes them from working. Sad!”

“We all struggle with the positions that are not management or higher pay. Presenting your company as one that treats employees fairly will do more to build your image in a community than gimmicks to attract workers.”

“In the past, I have brought on some workers through the work release program offered by a local corrections facility. This worked out very well for what I required at the time. There were no worries that the individuals would be on time and there were incentives for them to perform at an acceptable level and to stay on as a full-time employee after their sentence was satisfied. If this is an option, I would highly suggest getting more information. As far as those who stayed on after serving their time, the percentage was low. It is for this reason I have some trepidation in regard to hiring ‘returning citizens.’ The time spent training new employees is expensive and we all want people who have the best chance for long term employment.

“Why does everyone seem to be looking outside the box? Why not look inside the box? One of the most important things that I have both experienced and observed is that companies that create a positive culture seem to do better at both attracting personnel and keeping them. This is not always easy and relies upon a few very key personnel. Make the work environment fun, yet demanding. Challenge your employees and reward their work ethic. Most importantly, get rid of the negative/complaining employees, even if they may have been there for years or play a crucial role. If you are scared to do this, your challenge of getting and keeping employees will be forever an issue. Attitude is infectious, whether it is good or bad.”

“Know your costs and don’t be afraid to be creative and competitive. Take a close look at culture. Companies with a strong culture have a reputation that precedes them due to the current employment landscape. Bad cultural and employment practices are finally catching up with many employers, as employees now have ample opportunities and are often choosing the employers with the best practices and culture instead of the highest paying salaries.”

“First, look at who is hiring. Sometimes middle managers project an attitude that drives potential candidates away rather than attracting the next rising star.”

“As always, the best source of new employees are referrals from existing ones. We offer a $1,000 referral bonus to employees if they bring us someone that we end up hiring. We’ve also resorted to hiring recruiters, a practice that we used to avoid. The nice thing about using a recruiter is we can call anyone and claim ignorance if it turns out they contact a good customer, vendor, etc. We are also posting jobs in other areas of the country that are economically harder hit than our own area with hopes of attracting people from out of state. Yes, we will offer a relocation allowance. Truck drivers are impossible to find, so we’ve resorted to outsourcing our delivery services to a 3PL and so far, it’s working pretty well.”

“We did this in the past with some success. Most of our ‘returning citizens’ came through a work release program. While in program, they were very good. Once released and on their own, not so much. Many of our returning citizens’ underlying cause for incarceration was substance abuse which led to breaking and entering or such. We never took on a violent crime case, and no weapon charges. What we found is the substance abuse reared its ugly head later, once they were back on the streets. In hindsight, it might have been beneficial to the returning citizen and us if we required proof of attending AA or NA meetings while in our employment.”

“You give the people limited responsibilities if they were a criminal and as they can prove themselves, they get more responsibilities with better pay. For employees with no criminal baggage, health insurance coverage with employer paying most if not all, as well as some sort of retirement (401k match) to separate your job offer from your competitors.”

“We hire returning felons through a half-way house and have had pretty good results.”

“Don’t risk it.”

“We need bodies to put the product out the door, so we hire people without drug tests and ask them about their history. Most new hires are honest in admitting their crime or jail time and they last if the other employees accept them. Many are happy to get the second chance.”

“With the difficulty of finding help we went to the local temp agency and said we would be willing to look at all applicants, even those with a criminal record, as long as they weren’t pedophiles or wife beaters. The following week we brought in a man in his 30s with a fairly long list of criminal activity. Told him that after his 90-day probation with the temp agency, if he passed a drug test, I would hire him. He has been we me now going on two years and is moving up the pay scale faster than most. Every day I get a thank you for giving him a chance. His outward appearance is somewhat frightening with tattoos, but once I got to know him, he was just lost in the prison system and did most of them for survival.”

“We have hired four ‘returning citizens’ and for the most part they are like any other employee. We had one that has worked out very well, one that was sent back a few months but would rehire them as they were a good worker, and we had two that we let go due to performance issues. We are looking at hiring another. Frankly, they’re on pretty short leashes. Plus, working with your local workforce agency (every county has one), there is quite often grant money available to cover some of the costs to train them.”

“I believe we need to change the thought culture around construction-related careers. We used to be viewed as a great career with a lot of growth opportunity and little college debt to enter the field. The wages had become diminished, and we’ve stopped appealing to the up and coming kids who are graduating from high school. We need to change the mindset that construction is a labor-intensive dead-end job that doesn’t require much skill and is low paying. We need to continue to raise the wages, inform and show the next generations that there is a great deal of opportunity in the construction industry. There are so many ways you can go in construction, and you can enter without debt and can grow into a very fulfilling and financially rewarding career.”

“Everyone deserves a second chance. Also, today’s workers are looking for more flexibility from their employers. This means benefits and expanded vacation time. Today’s employees are all about work / life balance, especially the younger employees. The days of working for just a paycheck are over.”

“I think it is a good idea. It depends on the felony, but, I think in many cases, it could really work well. I disagree with our corporate policy. I don’t think people should have to pay for mistakes for their entire life. Forgiveness is a necessary part of life and people deserve the opportunity to move forward. It is repeat offenders that are a problem.”

“I believe attitude is a key point in interviewing these types of candidates. If the potential candidate has a positive attitude and an attitude of willingness to learn and put him/herself under the authority of supervisors, they can be a good asset.”

“Use significantly higher sign-on bonuses, and also higher referral bonuses to current employees.”


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