Nelson: Humanitarian hiring improves business one job at a time

Any working person can remember his or her first job. Whether it was a babysitting gig, distributing newspapers, scooping ice cream or delivering pizza, that feeling of nervousness and desire to make a good first impression during the interview and initial weeks on the job may feel like it was yesterday. 

Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a young person who is eager to find work but happens to be exiting homelessness. Oftentimes, young people in this situation may not have work experience, access to a shower to clean up for an interview or a computer to write a résumé and apply for jobs online. Many young people feel so intimidated before and after interviews that they don’t follow up. An already nerve-wracking process just became that much more challenging, didn’t it?

Although young people experiencing homelessness may look like the next candidate and have all of the qualities and skills needed to thrive in the work environment, many businesses’ hiring practices and requirements tend to overlook the opportunity to add this young adult to the team. A significant part of finding a job is through networks, something that young people who are unhoused often don’t have.

Today’s hiring practices call for several qualifications that lead unhoused youths to feel unrecognized and discouraged. A few common and outdated hiring practices include irrelevant requirements,  job descriptions that are not gender-neutral and ask trick questions during the interview. I have heard stories from unhoused young people being asked questions early in the interview about criminal charges, substance use and other assumptive questions based on a perception of homelessness. Additionally, a fair amount of employers don’t get back to applicants when they don’t have an address. 

So, how exactly can we begin to address the gap in today’s hiring practices? 

Consider the advantages of partnering with local organizations dedicated to ending youth homelessness. In Boulder, TGTHR partners with businesses to build pathways for youths to get experience and gain the skills necessary for career success. We don’t want to see restaurants closing because they can’t hire staff or the small businesses that move away from Boulder because they can’t afford rent. If we, as a community, can’t come together to see where the opportunities are for businesses and youth, then we are perpetually going to have this labor shortage. 

Let me be clear — this is not at all about exploiting young people for a business benefit or because it is more affordable. This is about building sustainable businesses, which requires fair hiring practices. Homelessness does not make someone unworthy — it makes them that much more deserving of a work opportunity. 

Addressing our inadequate hiring practices will empower Boulder businesses to better understand how to support young people contending with homelessness. Simply acknowledging and addressing youth homelessness is not only a business responsibility but helping provide employment opportunities to support young people in our community should be seen as a privilege.

Chris Nelson leverages more than 25 years of experience working with youth, including 14 years at TGTHR, a nonprofit business dedicated to ending youth homelessness.