Ron Nelsen has been in the garage door business since 1976. He can’t recall a time when it’s been this difficult to find workers for his family business, Pioneer Overhead Door in Las Vegas.

When his assistant handed him Ian Black’s résumé in April, it seemed like a godsend. Black had more than a decade of experience.

Then Nelsen noticed that all of Black’s recent jobs were at a state prison.

Black is an inmate at Casa Grande, a work-release facility that’s a seven-minute walk from Pioneer Overheard Door. Nelsen knew the place well. He and other business owners in the industrial neighborhood had protested Casa Grande’s arrival in 2005.

But now his business was booming, and Nelsen needed workers who knew what they were doing. He decided to interview the inmate.

“Ian did well in the interview. He was articulate and respectful, and he told me he’d been an idiot when he was younger,” Nelsen said. Even so, Nelsen said, “I was still apprehensive.”


America’s unemployment rate is at a 17-year low – at 4.1 percent – and JPMorgan predicts it could fall to 3.4 percent this year, the lowest level since the 1969. Businesses large and small complain they can’t find workers, especially ones willing to do the arduous labor of landscaping, construction or stocking shelves. Companies have traditionally sought out immigrant labor to fill some of these jobs, but the Trump administration is aggressively going after businesses that use undocumented immigrants.

In this political and economic environment, big companies like Walmart and Koch Industries and smaller ones like Pioneer Overhead Door are turning to an underutilized source of labor: inmates and the formerly incarcerated.

It’s a large, mostly untapped pool of workers: Roughly 20 million Americans have been convicted of a felony, according to research by University of Georgia Professor Sarah Shannon and her colleagues.

But even if the need for workers is great and attitudes are shifting, it’s not an easy decision. On his desk in a big warehouse a few blocks from the Las Vegas Strip, Nelsen has statues of saints and the Virgin Mary. A practicing Catholic, he asked friends whether he should hire a Casa Grande inmate. Almost everyone said yes, he should offer a chance of redemption. Among fellow business owners, opinions were mixed.

Nelsen has five workers who hang the garage doors at homes and commercial facilities such as warehouses and carwashes. It was a big risk, some said, to take on someone who has been convicted six times for nonviolent burglaries.

Nelsen’s wife urged him to take a chance. So he offered Black a job, and Black, who has been in prison for the past nine years, accepted quickly, saying it gave him a “sense of purpose” for the first time in decades.


Black spends his nights locked in a cell, but on weekdays, he wears a dark gray Pioneer Overhead Door uniform with his name on it. Customers don’t know about his past. They only see the quality of the work now.

“He’s my best worker,” Nelsen said. “Out of all my technicians, he’s the one I wouldn’t want to lose.”

Some companies ask job applicants immediately if they have ever been convicted of a crime to screen them out, but the ACLU and the NAACP say they have seen a “change of heart” in the past year, with more businesses willing to take a chance on people with criminal histories.

“Businesses are beginning to ask: Why did we have such stringent bans?” says Ngozi Ndulue, senior director of criminal justice programs at the NAACP.

Increasingly, business leaders see hiring people with criminal records as the right thing to do for America – and for their companies.

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