FILE - Job fair

Job seekers line up for a job fair.

In a state with a steady 2.4 percent unemployment rate and tens of thousands of job openings, Iowa employers are becoming more and more open to hiring candidates with criminal convictions and other obstacles to employment.

That’s the view of Kyle Horn, director of the Des Moines-based America’s Job Honor Awards, a nonprofit organization that highlights people who have overcome adversity in the job market and helps employers select qualified, motivated job seekers.

“Attitudes are changing,” Horn told The Center Square. “Employers increasingly recognize that just because (job candidates) have a scarlet letter of a criminal conviction in their background doesn’t mean they’re incapable of changing.”

Although he doesn’t have hard data proving that more employers are more likely to hire previously overlooked job candidates, Horn points out that nationwide, 70 million people have some kind of criminal conviction in their past.

“That’s about the same number of Americans who have four-year college degrees,” he said. He added that employers need to give them a chance if the companies are to stay competitive in a tight job market.

That’s not to say everyone released from prison will be a good job candidate, according to Horn. Many leave prison unchanged, but plenty with criminal pasts also have overcome their negative patterns of behavior and can show more commitment toward a job than mainstream candidates, Horn said.

“They understand it’s transformative for them and their families,” he said. “... We help to equip employers with skills and knowledge to help employers to discern whether an individual has changed.”

Many of the concerns some employers have about hiring those with criminal convictions – such as possible damage to a firm’s reputation or compliance issues with industry-wide standards – can be addressed with straightforward solutions, according to Horn.

“We need to drag those concerns out of the basement and into the daylight,” he said.

The candidates themselves need to ultimately make the case that they have turned their lives around and are ready to demonstrate a strong work ethic, according to Horn, who prefers to refer to such job candidates as “returning citizens.”

That term emphasizes that the person is on a path to re-enter regular society, he said.

“It emphasizes their humanity, and it emphasizes their trajectory,” Horn said. “They’re coming back.”

Only a small percentage of criminals will serve life sentences, so communities need to give those released from incarceration a chance to rebuild their lives, he said.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and the state legislature have made moves recently to further efforts to hire former convicts who have paid their debt to society and are qualified and motivated. Earlier this year, Reynolds signed a bill into law that will protect employers who hire ex-offenders from litigation that’s based exclusively on past convictions.