While working at a logistics company, NC State grad Zach Howard began noticing trends that led him to start SKLLD, his Raleigh-based startup that helps a historically underserved population gain access to jobs and training: the formerly incarcerated.
The logistics firm where Howard got his start is a “fair chance” employer, meaning that applicants are not asked about any past criminal convictions in the hiring process before a conditional offer has been made.
He had never been exposed to this kind of hiring practice, but Howard noticed how smart, driven and talented many of these formerly incarcerated individuals were when his own employer hired them to fill some positions opened by the “Great Resignation” in 2021.
A novel idea began to form in Howard’s mind. The formerly incarcerated often struggle to find jobs despite hard work and positive attitudes, and his employer wasn’t alone in needing to expand their workforce. What if other employers hired formerly incarcerated individuals to fill these positions?
“Logistics is all about full utilization and being efficient,” Howard said. “So when I started learning about the Great Resignation and employee shortages, I started thinking, well, maybe we’re not utilizing everybody as best as we can. I found that there’s a whole segment of the population being overlooked and not being utilized. That was the impetus for SKLLD.”
While filling positions, SKLLD looks to tackle one element of the many problems that plague the American prison system: recidivism rates. According to First Steps Alliance, a nonprofit that serves the formerly incarcerated, 70% of prisoners return to prison within five years of being released.
At any given time, over 2 million individuals are involved with the American justice system, leaving the U.S. with the largest prison population in the world. Many factors play into these recidivism rates, including abrupt separation from social support systems and lack of access to financial safety nets. But hiring discrimination is an addressable aspect of this complicated issue, Howard said.
“I will never be able to fix all of it, but I am trying to put a dent in it and do a little bit of good where I can,” Howard said. “If the prison system is meant to reform and rehabilitate, it is missing the mark.”
Originally, SKLLD’s work to get formerly incarcerated individuals employed was tripartite. As a first step, SKLLD connects with charity organizations, rehabilitation facilities and halfway houses that help people get back on their feet after release from prison. SKLLD then helps those formerly incarcerated individuals become more marketable employees with job training (including coding bootcamps) and professional development. Finally, SKLLD connects these individuals with employers who are willing to take a chance on these up-skilled employees.
“It is a complex issue, and I am trying to partner with experts with every step of the way,” Howard said.
A formerly incarcerated person will never pay for SKLLD’s service outright. Previously, SKLLD had received a commission from companies that employed SKLLD’s trainees, but Howard is now looking to partner with local employers to sponsor semi-annual cohorts of formerly incarcerated individuals through coding training, sales training or even classwork at local community colleges.
Once these cohorts graduate, employers would be the exclusive first choice to hire them. It’s a win for SKLLD, a win for the employer, and a win for the formerly incarcerated employee. Longterm, Howard hopes to take this training a step back, so that currently incarcerated individuals have more prospects to look forward to after graduation.
Howard recognizes that some companies might not be ready to take a chance on someone with an unconventional personal history. But with promising studies showing that the formerly incarcerated bring qualities hard to find in today’s turbulent work environment, he hopes employers will make the leap to support lowering incarceration rates, facilitate workforces with diverse experiences and hire better employees with the help of SKLLD.
“80% of business leaders and HR leaders say that formerly incarcerated people are just as good or better at their job than other people,” Howard said. “There’s also growing evidence that they are more loyal to employers, and they tend to stay longer. People that you take a chance on tend to stay with you longer and be more invested in company success. That’s very topical and that’s pretty valuable right now, post-Great Resignation.”