As employers grapple with staggering labor shortages, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported more than 11 million job openings in the U.S. economy at the end of November 2021. Suzanne Clark, President and CEO of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, noted these concerns during her State of American Business 2022 Keynote Address. Along with policy changes around immigration, Clark also emphasized that American businesses should encourage historically overlooked workers.
"And who in this country can we help get off the sidelines and back in the game?", she asked. "Parents without access to affordable childcare. People with limited access to broadband and remote work. Formerly incarcerated adults who have paid their debt to society. Individuals struggling with addiction."
This past June, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation established America Works, a new nationwide initiative mobilizing industry and government to swiftly address America's deepening worker shortage crisis.
Through the initiative, the U.S. Chamber is advocating for federal and state policy changes that will help train more Americans for in-demand jobs, remove barriers to work, and double the number of visas available for legal immigrants. At the same time, the U.S. Chamber Foundation will expand its most impactful employer-led workforce and job training programs and launch new efforts to connect employers to undiscovered talent.
According to research conducted by the Prison Policy Institute, formerly incarcerated people are unemployed at a rate of 27 percent, which remains higher than the total U.S. unemployment rate during any historical period, including the Great Depression.
Using the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management (TPM) framework, the Kentucky Chamber Foundation's Workforce Center launched an equine industry initiative in late 2019, in partnership with the Thoroughbred Retirement Foundation's (TRF) Second Chances program. The program, based at Blackburn Correctional Facility, a federal prison in Lexington, Kentucky, began in 1999 and offers vocational training to inmates on horse anatomy, injury care, equine nutrition, and other aspects of horse care with off-the-track thoroughbreds that are retired from racing.
Laurie Mays, the Agriculture and Equine Talent Pipeline Project Manager at the Kentucky Chamber Foundation's Workforce Center, saw an opportunity to develop a more comprehensive Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program.
The horse industry has a significant impact on the Bluegrass State. With more than 1,100 horse farms, the equine industry contributes an estimated 60,000 jobs and $6.5 billion of direct and indirect economic impact. However, the equine industry has suffered from significant labor shortages that stagnate growth. Historically, the industry was run by workers who grew up in the trade. Still, with fewer people experiencing an agricultural lifestyle, coupled with the physical demands of working with horses, it created a dire need for workers.
As a part of the TPM Thoroughbred Farm collaborative, employers coordinate with Mays, who works in tandem with TRF and members of the Department of Corrections, such as the warden and their reentry specialist. They developed a curriculum for the Workforce Readiness and Reentry program by focusing on writing cover letters, resume writing, and cultivating job search and interview skills. Once a program graduate nears release, Mays facilitates interviews between the individual and engaged employers. After an individual secures a job placement, the team works to ensure any transportation, housing, and financial needs, such as establishing a bank account, are overcome so a seamless transition to a career and a new beginning can exist.
"The Kentucky Chamber Foundation has received a lot of recognition for our programming as well as our work in the industry," Mays explained. "We've seen coverage because the program emphasizes the need for collaboration across lines in a unique way. And it's not because the entities weren't willing, it's because no one knew where to start, so they never did."
Over the last eighteen months, the program has placed eight men within the equine industry specifically, which ranges from farms, both thoroughbred and non-racing farms, to vet clinics. As more employers learn of the success of the Workforce Readiness and Reentry Program in Lexington, Mays hopes to develop more partnerships within the region and replicate the same structure in other prison facilities to help expand opportunities.
"We would love to place as many people as possible, and that's the goal ultimately, but really, I'm motivated by the quality of the work that we do," Mays said. "We have one individual who is actually our first graduate of the program. To see him in his work at Blackburn in his uniform when he was incarcerated and then see him in a farm's uniform, at international competitions, and putting those two pictures side by side is very profound. If you meet someone where they are and help them in the way that they need specifically, they are capable of amazing feats —regardless of their history ."