AT&T CEO Hires Formerly Incarcerated and Urges Employers to 'Step up'
Updated: Apr 24, 2019
Dallas pastor T.D. Jakes challenged corporate leaders Wednesday to hire thousands of people who have been released from prison, but locked out of the workforce. He made his pitch with one of Dallas' most prominent CEOs by his side: Randall Stephenson of AT&T.
The two Dallas leaders — pastor of megachurch The Potter's House and top executive of the nation's 9th largest company — struck up a friendship after meeting two years ago at the Dallas Festival of Ideas. They talked about barriers to opportunity, especially for the formerly incarcerated. They decided to team up.
"If a guy gets out of prison and he can't get a place to stay because every application locks him out of a rental, much less ownership, he can't get a loan and he can't get a job, where else can he go except back to prison?" Jakes said.
AT&T has hired about a dozen employees who were formerly incarcerated to work at a Richardson call center as part of a pilot program. Stephenson said the company now plans to expand the program to other cities.
"If we truly are going to be a society who wants to ensure that we don't just have this revolving door to our prison system, then you've got to step up," he said. "You've got to be part of the solution."
Jakes and Stephenson sought to persuade a 900-person audience from North Texas businesses, government agencies and nonprofits to consider hiring formerly incarcerated people, too.
The event drew noteable executives and local leaders, including Dallas Police Chief U. Renee Hall, former Dallas County District Attorney Faith Johnson, and Dallas businessman and criminal justice reform advocate Doug Deason. It was hosted by the church, which is located in the Mountain Creek neighborhood in the southwest corner of Dallas.The luncheon raised money for the Texas Offenders Reentry Initiative, a 12-month program that The Potter's House started in 2005 to help people find a job and a home, mend relationships with family and adjust to society after being released from prison. The program has served about 23,000 people.
Barriers to the workforce
Each year, about 70,000 people in Texas return home from prison, said Tina Naidoo, executive director of the reentry initiative. She said Dallas is the state's second largest destination for released prisoners, behind Houston.
But when they return home, they face new challenges. Some don't have an email address. Others don't know how to write a cover letter and resume. And even if they have strong skills or a degree, many companies immediately throw out their job applications.
The unemployment rate in Dallas is 3.5%. It is 27% for people who were formerly incarcerated, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That's higher than the 25% unemployment rate at the peak of the Great Depression.
Many of the incarcerated go to prison for nonviolent offenses, such as drug convictions, Jakes said. "We're not trying to advocate to put murderers in the workforce."
Society, and the criminal justice system, treat drug addicts differently, depending on their race and socioeconomic background, Jakes said. He drew a comparison between Stephenson's background and his own.
"If my kid gets on drugs and he's a criminal and your kid gets on drugs and he has an illness ... then your kid gets to be a patient. He gets to come out openly and say, 'You know, I have this problem and I need rehabilitation.' He goes to some center and gets rehab," Jakes said. "My kid goes to prison and gets worse."
The reentry program has worked with about 80 employers, including AT&T and Mint Dentistry. But Naidoo said it can be tough to convince some corporations to take a chance on the job applicants.
She said she invited some of those reluctant companies to Wednesday's event — with the goal of changing their minds.
"Sometimes, you hear better from physician to physician, and this is CEO to CEO," she said.
A new talent pool
AT&T has hired about a dozen people who have graduated from the reentry program. They have a starting salary of $29,000 a year with health benefits, a 401K match and paid vacation, said Corey Anthony, vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer. That translates to roughly $14 an hour.
The hiring initiative is part of an AT&T campaign to reduce homelessness in Dallas, especially among veterans and families, by trying to address root causes like unemployment.
Anthony said AT&T has slowed its hiring process and made it more flexible. He said it considers each candidate and his or her background on a case-by-case basis.
AT&T doesn't "draw a hard and fast line" about criminal backgrounds, but screens candidates to make sure they're not a safety risk, Anthony said. For example, a person with a background of financial crimes would not get a job that gives them access to credit card information, he said.
During the pilot program, he said AT&T has helped employees overcome barriers, such as adjusting to corporate culture and finding transportation or child care.
Anthony said the new pool of applicants is one way to find skilled, hard-working employees as AT&T competes in a tight job market.
"It's talent," he said. "Just because a person has spent some time incarcerated doesn't mean they don't have talent. And at AT&T, we are always looking for talent."
Jakes commended Stephenson for his courage and said the two have had many candid exchanges. He also poked fun at the CEO's polished corporate image.
"He acts quiet, but he's not," Jakes said. "If you get the right kind of chicken in front of this guy, we can go at it for a good long while."