I was recently talking to a guy who’d served five years in state prison. He’d been considering taking some computer courses after his release — maybe even working towards an associate’s degree — but was afraid he’d be wasting his time. “They say get training, get more education,” he said. “Then I hear from friends who’ve done this stuff and they still can’t get jobs because nobody wants to hire someone with a record.”
It’s easy to get discouraged — particularly these days. Jobs keep disappearing and even college grads and seasoned professionals are struggling to find work. Factor in a felony conviction and it can seem like you’ve stepped up to the plate with three strikes already against you. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do everything you can to improve your chances. And while getting trained in new skills or going back to school won’t guarantee you a job, here are 5 reasons it still might be your best strategy:
1. You’ll make more money over the long term. People who have more education generally earn higher salaries and are less likely to be unemployed . According to the Department of Labor, the average weekly salary for a high school graduate is $595, compared to $721 if you have an associate’s degree and $962 for 4-year college graduates — and that’s before this recession. Additionally, the unemployment rate for high school graduates is twice as high as the rate for college grads. With most new jobs requiring higher skill levels that gap is likely to grow even larger.
2. It’s is a terrific way to start fresh. Every course or training session you sign up for marks a new beginning by virtue of the fact that you’re there to learn something. Whether you’re hoping to develop a new area of expertise or upgrade the skills you have, seeking out education demonstrates initiative, as well as a willingness to grow and change – key traits all employers look for. The classroom can also be more forgiving than the workplace when you’re trying to get back in the groove. There are usually no barriers to entry and your performance is measured by what you do in the course, not what came before.
3. Classes may be more affordable than you think. As in free, in many cases. Your local One-Stop Career Centers regularly host ESL, basic skills and GED classes at no cost. You should also check with your state’s department of rehabilitative services. These agencies often have subsidized courses in everything from computer repair to office administration and health care for people with mental or physical disabilities. In terms of technical schools and colleges, the Prisoner Reentry Institute published a great report last year that details educational opportunities, their costs and funding possibilities. If you’re interested in pursuing a college degree you can qualify for the same loans as any other student, plus for Pell grants of up to $5,350 a year as long as you haven’t had a drug conviction. And among the scholarships without those limitations is the recently announced Strive and Rush Philanthropic Arts Foundation Scholarship, which is to be awared annually to an ex-offender who was convicted under New York’s Rockefeller drug laws and wants to earn an arts degree.
4. Training can lead to contacts with potential employers, work experience and even jobs. Apprenticeship programs allow you to earn as you learn a trade such as plumbing welding or even something in the emerging industries like IT, energy or telecommunications. You can check out some of those opportunities here and here. Programs at community or technical colleges in fields such as dental hygiene or health care also require you to work in the field while earning your degree. Degrees at four-year colleges tend to be more subject-oriented than job specific, but internships are now standard practice. These experiences tend to be unpaid — though they still provide opportunities to make the personal connections in your industry that could allow a potential employer to see around the record to the motivated and hardworking individual you are right now.
5. It’s the only way to keep up with the competition. Even people who have been working steadily for 25 years now realize that to survive in today’s workplace you have to be constantly learning. While you’ve been serving your sentence, everyone from grocery store clerks and healthcare workers to truck drivers and office administrators have been coming to grips with new technologies and new ways of communicating and doing business. Low-skilled, but high paying manufacturing jobs that you used to be able to get out of high school are disappearing. Instead, laid-off workers are referred to retraining programs so they too, can find a marketable skill. If you want to be able to compete for jobs in this market you have to keep learning. It’s that simple.
In a future post, ‘ll talk more about choosing the right program for you. In the meantime, another useful site to start investigating opportunities in your area is the The National Hire Network, which lists re-entry resources by state.