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With job vacancies high, employers seek out workers they might have previously passed over

Kareem Berry, who works in materials management at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, stocked medical supplies recently. Welcomed to the staff during a hiring crisis, Berry has been working at the Brigham for four months.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

Faced with too many job openings and not enough people to fill them, employers are considering candidates they might not have even looked at in the past, a change that could have lasting implications for the labor market.

Companies are reaching out to applicants with criminal records and disabilities. They’re dropping drug testing and welcoming those struggling with homelessness. In some cases, college degrees and related job experience are no longer required.

At the end of last year, there were nearly 11 million job openings nationwide, but only 6.3 million unemployed people, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And even as the economy continues to recover and the need for workers rises, some people are leaving the workforce entirely. In Massachusetts, the labor force dropped by almost 63,000 people last year, while more than 222,000 jobs were added.

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Tight labor markets often lead to the temporary loosening of hiring practices, but this time around there’s potential to bring more people into the workforce permanently, economists and employment specialists say. A cascade of baby boomers retiring early and workers abandoning low-wage professions has created a massive need at a time when companies are actively seeking to diversify their ranks. Armed with this mission, along with improved technologies and new-found remote work capabilities, employers are lowering barriers that have long left people on the sidelines.

Kareem Berry, 33, had struggled to find a steady job for years before he was hired by Brigham and Women’s Hospital in the fall. Berry, who was born and raised in Dorchester, served 32 months in prison for selling drugs. After he got out in 2018, he took a job-readiness course at Strive Boston and bounced around at temporary and seasonal jobs. Often, however, when prospective employers found out about his record, he said, “a lot of people didn’t give me a call back.”

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Then Strive connected him with an apprenticeship program at the Brigham aimed at chronically unemployed Bostonians. Berry started working in materials management, stocking supply rooms with syringes, gloves, and gowns, and is now a full-time employee making well above minimum wage with health insurance and a 401(k) match.

The program started three years ago, but as the hospital seeks to provide more opportunities — and with nearly 10 percent of its jobs unfilled, double the amount before the pandemic — more workers are being brought in this way, said program founder Bernard Jones. Previously, the hospital had a practice of not hiring people with certain offenses on their records, Jones said, even though no official policy prevented it. Now, all applicants with a nonviolent background are considered.

“These are people who have gone through challenges and come out the other side,” said Jones, who hopes to expand the program throughout the Mass General Brigham system. “How do we create a durable pathway for people whose access to mobility has been limited or denied by structural issues?”

Nationwide, there are more than 27 million “hidden workers” who are unemployed or underemployed because they are routinely screened out during the hiring process, according to a 2021 Harvard Business School study. These are people with mental health or developmental challenges, physical disabilities, or prison records. They are immigrants, caregivers, veterans. They might come from disadvantaged backgrounds or lack a college degree.

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Three-quarters of US employers in the study used some type of automated hiring system that rejects candidates whose resumes raise red flags, leaving “no room for any narrative,” said study coauthor Joseph Fuller, a Harvard management professor.

But if employers took a more thoughtful approach to hiring, they’d likely be happy with the results, he said. Companies that have gone “upstream” to find people they might not have typically considered report higher productivity and less turnover.

At a time when corporate awareness of racial inequities is at an all-time high, inviting in more people, especially those involved in the criminal justice system, which disproportionately affects people of color, would go a long way toward diversifying the workforce, Fuller said.

Several efforts to remove structural employment barriers are underway at the state and federal levels. In Massachusetts, $1.4 million in grants is being offered to organizations helping formerly incarcerated residents and young people with disabilities find jobs. The US Labor Department recently launched an initiative to dismantle hiring roadblocks based on race, age, gender, sexual orientation, and ability. Congress is also considering legislation that would decriminalize marijuana use and expunge records for marijuana offenses — efforts supported by Amazon, which stopped screening job applicants for the drug last summer.

Other parts of corporate America are also getting onboard. The Bank Policy Institute, an advocacy group representing the country’s biggest banks, is pushing to loosen federal restrictions on people with criminal records working in banks. The Second Chance Business Coalition, made up of major companies including Walmart and AT&T, promotes expanding opportunities for people with criminal backgrounds.

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Kelly Services, a national staffing agency that works with 165 employers in New England, launched the Equity@Work initiative in the fall to improve access for job seekers, including those on the autism spectrum or without college degrees. In the runup to launching the program, Kelly placed 645 job seekers with criminal records at a Toyota plant in Kentucky and said the effort reduced monthly turnover to an all-time low and increased the diversity rate by 8 percent.

“Because of the talent shortage, customers are willing to revisit their hiring policies,” said Kelly chief executive Peter Quigley.

The Hampden County Sheriff’s Department in Ludlow, which has a long-running vocational program for inmates, said the number of employers reaching out for staffing assistance has tripled compared to before the pandemic.

People with disabilities are also getting more interest from employers. At the end of 2021, about 13 percent more people with disabilities were employed compared to February 2020, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Restaurants, retailers, hospitals, and nonprofits are reaching out like never before to find job candidates through the Institute for Community Inclusion at UMass Boston, said Jill Eastman, employment program coordinator at the institute promoting the inclusion of people with disabilities.

The Museum of Science, for example, recently inquired about training staff to hire and work alongside people with mental health challenges, she said. And given all the technological advances that make jobs more accessible, such as talk-to-text programs that circumvent the need to type, these changes could be long-lasting.

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The increased ability to work remotely is also making a difference. Katie Condo, who has a bachelor’s degree in English and is pursuing a master’s in social work, just landed her first job in October, at the age of 32. Condo, who works from her family’s home in Hull, estimates she has applied for more than 2,000 jobs over the years, but when employers find out she has cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair, she said, “you can hear them tense up.”

Condo was hired by You’re With Us!, a North Andover nonprofit that promotes social inclusion for people with developmental disabilities. Seeking to expand the program, chief executive Michael Plansky asked staff members to increase their networking efforts, which is how they found Condo. He is also considering helping employees pay for certification and college degrees. “How do we make it easier for people to say yes?” he said.

People without stable housing also often struggle to find employment. And in the fall, with many employers short-handed, the Boston nonprofit Breaktime decided to expand its mission to connect the two. Now, along with placing homeless young adults in three-month jobs at nonprofits, Breaktime has partnered with about a dozen small businesses.

Michael Aparicio, founder of the Boston small-business consulting firm Revby, which just brought on a technologically savvy Breaktime worker, said the partnership is a win-win. His company supports an important social initiative and gets a crucial staffing boost in exchange.

In this hypercompetitive labor market, tapping into a talent pool that isn’t on traditional recruiting platforms is key, Aparicio said: “We’re now in a place where we need to have alternatives to Indeed and LinkedIn.”


Katie Johnston can be reached at katie.johnston@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ktkjohnston.