For the roughly five million formerly incarcerated individuals living in the U.S. – and millions more that have some type of criminal record – finding honest jobs can be like looking for a needle in a haystack.
The formerly incarcerated face a staggering unemployment rate of approximately 27%, compared to the roughly 4% for the general population.
Harley Blakeman counts himself among that five million. But now, the Columbus-based entrepreneur is chipping away at that haystack one job post at a time.
At 15, Blakeman’s father passed away unexpectedly. His mother was battling addiction and unable to be a parent to him, leaving him on his own. Over the next two years, as Blakeman bounced from couch to couch essentially homeless, he began taking, and then selling, pills. Just weeks after his 18th birthday, he was arrested for drug trafficking.
After serving 14 months in prison in Savannah, Georgia, Blakeman moved to Columbus for a fresh start.
His eventual path to entrepreneurship started with a position as a dishwasher. While he struggled to find many honest jobs because of his record, he saved up as much as he could in the position and started attending Columbus State Community College.
Excelling at Columbus State, he applied and was accepted into The Ohio State University Fisher College of Business. Blakeman’s background again presented a challenge as he struggled to find quality internships despite being at the top of his class. He felt like there should have been more opportunities.
It was during those years in college when Blakeman also began to explore entrepreneurship. Starts and ideas never quite panned out, but came with many valuable lessons.
After graduating with a 3.7 GPA, Blakeman initially followed a traditional route. He got a job at Owens Corning; got promoted after seven months. But entrepreneurship was calling.
While at Owens Corning, Blakeman took one of his ideas to the social enterprise SEA Change accelerator.
He pitched The Comeback Collective, an online school that would teach individuals returning from incarceration skills like how to build a resume, interview and get into college.
The social enterprise gained its first customers for the video-based monthly subscription service, but Blakeman says, “We were spending too much money to get each customer.”
He then started approaching nonprofits to sell bulk subscriptions the organizations could assign to the individuals they serve. The Comeback Collective on boarded one nonprofit, but after a few more months, realized there wasn’t a product market fit. And they needed money.
Blakeman enlisted the help of a developer and made a pivot. Over a weekend, they roughed out an idea for an online platform that would connect formerly incarcerated individuals with employers willing to consider them.
Blakeman took the idea to a couple of manufacturers in Columbus. The first company he met with asked how much they would charge, $90/month, said yes, and cut a check for three months in advance.
That’s when Blakeman realized they were on to something and HonestJobs.co was born.
Over the last four months, Blakeman and his business partner Josh Watters continued to build out the platform, which has amassed 23 employers, positions across the country and confirmed hires through the website.
Employers can post their first three honest jobs for free. After that it’s a tiered pricing plan based on the number of job posts. Up to 10 posts are $299/month, 20 posts cost $499/month, all the way up to 1,000 active jobs for $4,799/month. Paid plans also come with extra benefits like advanced analytics, email marketing campaigns and the option of invoices instead of credit card payments.
Blakeman is utilizing his network in Columbus to make connections with employers, and doing plenty of good old fashioned cold calling. It’s working, albeit slowly. Some cold calls have turned to customers. They are also navigating the typically longer sales cycle that comes with working with large, Fortune 500 companies.
The positions on HonestJobs.co are concentrated in a handful of industries. Blakeman says that many opportunities fall along the supply chain, from manufacturing to trucking and warehousing. There are also some retail and food service related positions, as well as call centers and other more hourly-based jobs like oil change companies.
Word of mouth has delivered some job seekers. They’ve also targeted Facebook groups for formerly incarcerated individuals and done traditional advertising in markets where they have honest jobs.
Blakeman also plans for HonestJobs.co to develop relationships with nonprofits and probation and parole officers. His goal is to one day have posters, ads and print materials in every parole and probation office across the country.
Economical and marketing factors are driving the increased conversation around fair-chance employment.
The tight job market has employers considering these populations when they might not have before. Traditional job seekers have more options than ever, which can lead to higher turnover and costly re-hiring. Instead, research shows that formerly incarcerated individuals are more loyal, leading to higher retention rates and lower turnover.
Many employers are also leveraging the Work Opportunity Tax Credit. There are a number of factors that make an individual qualified for the credit, including being convicted of a felony and released from prison for a felony in the last year. Employers stand to earn between $2,000 – $9,600 in tax credits.
There’s also a social component. Blakeman says that if company leadership can get behind the idea of doing this for a bottom line issue, they can also get behind fair-chance employment as a social issue. He’s never seen a company opt for this model and not be praised for it.
For more information, visit honestjobs.co.