Jeff Korzenik

Jeff Korzenik, Fifth Third Bank chief investment strategist, speaks at Tuesday’s Traverse Connect Business Expo at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.

ACME — Economists are thinking hard about how to grow the U.S. labor force.

A growing economy requires workers. Companies everywhere are struggling to find enough workers to satisfy need.

Jeff Korzenik, chief investment strategist at Fifth Third Bank, outlined a couple of sources his team believes could provide more workers to get America’s work done. He delivered the keynote address at Tuesday’s Traverse Connect Business Expo at Grand Traverse Resort and Spa.

The nation’s worker shortage has stemmed from several factors, he said.

The opioid abuse crisis has resulted in millions of Americans, primarily young men, being absent from the workforce.

“When you’re missing young men, you’re missing a lot,” Korzenik said. “You can miss them for years.”

Drug abuse can result in absence from the workforce for decades, perhaps a lifetime. But, he said, the multi-front battle against opioid abuse is bringing attention to the issue.

“We’re making some progress, but it will be a long road back,” he said.

Another pool of potential talent is convicted felons who have served their sentences and been released.

“Felons may not be what we think they are,” said Korzenik.

He offered an example: A woman years ago was arrested at age 19 for having two fake IDs that she used to buy drinks. She since has been barred from a wide range of jobs because many companies refuse to hire convicted felons. That mistake early in life has prevented her, he said, from contributing fully to the workforce and the economy.

Millions of low-level convicted felons are underemployed or unemployed even though they complete their punishment, regret their mistake and want to work, Korzenik said.

Barring those folks from good jobs often leads them back into a life of crime, he said, while getting them into the workforce often leads them into a productive life.

“The real cost is what happens when they come out,” Korzenik said of people with prison time in their past. “We think we can do ourselves a favor by diving into marginalized pools of labor.”

He believes the hiring of people who have served time — particularly those who were convicted of relatively minor infractions at a young age — could provide a key solution to improving workforce participation while simultaneously reducing the number of former prisoners who return to a life of crime.

Making better use of marginalized workers is particularly important, he said, because the birth rate is declining.

Korzenik said Fifth Third economists see another group poised to begin leaving the workforce. Millennial women now are nearing childbearing age, he said, and it is likely many new mothers will exit the workforce, at least for a time.