With six unemployed workers competing for every job opening in the U.S. right now, ex-offenders are having an even harder time finding work. But as some employment experts reminded me recently, that’s no excuse for giving up. In fact, while you can’t control the economy, there are a number of things you can do to improve your chances of getting that one employer to look beyond your record — even in this market:
Manage your expectations. More applicants mean employers can be pickier and go for the cream of the crop. Yet ex-offenders are still finding jobs, notes Marsha Enkerud, a manager with SkillsSource Employment Centers in Fairfax County, VA. “It’s tough, but it’s always tough,” she adds, “the bigger problem is that the available jobs are not always jobs people want to take.” So instead of setting yourself up for disappointment, you have to come to terms with the fact that there will be some jobs you can’t get. You may have to scale back your expectations about what you “deserve” and think in simpler terms. You need an income, you need a job that you can go out and do every day so you feel good about yourself, says Nathaniel Harris, job developer who works with ex-offenders at OAR Fairfax where I volunteer. “Even if you’re flipping burgers, you’re networking,” he says. “If the manager likes what you’re doing you never know where that will lead.”
Ask for help. This isn’t being weak, it’s being smart. I’ve written before about the variety of resources out there that assist ex-offenders in getting back on their feet. The time to take advantage of this help is immediately upon your release, if not sooner. A good place to start is the National Hire Network, which lists useful agencies and services by state. You’ll be surprised how many people are willing to give you a hand, provided you’re sincere about wanting to change. Organizations such as OAR often have intensive workshops as well as caseworkers who will help you with job search preparation. They can also usually assist with housing, regaining licenses and identification and referrals for other services you might need.
Do the hard work. People will gladly give you guidance and information, but they won’t hold your hand and do everything for you. They’ll also lose patience quickly if you don’t follow through. If you don’t show up on time and properly dressed for a work skills seminar, for example, your caseworker is going to assume you’d do the same thing at a real job interview and be less likely to send you out to see an employer. You have to make your job search your priority, which means coming up with a plan, contacting employers and keeping appointments. You’re not going to find work sitting home watching soap operas and dreaming of the better life. You’ve got to get busy.
Build for the future. Criminal thinking is about the here and now, the need for immediate gratification and immediate results. To break that cycle, says Harris, you have to start thinking a little bit in the future. How can you make yourself more marketable? Are there education or training opportunities you should consider to try to level out the disparity between the risk and barriers you might present to an employer vs. someone who doesn’t have a record? What skills and experience can you get in one job that might lead to another position? You can reach your goals, but you need to do it one step at a time.
Think small. Even if you worked for a large organization in the past, it’s better to focus on smaller firms, according to re-entry experts. Smaller companies often have less formal hiring processes, they’re also less likely to do the background and credit checks that might immediately disqualify someone convicted of a felony; particularly in this economy. You’re also more likely to have a chance to make your case — and a personal connection — with at a small, privately-owned business, where the owner makes the hiring decisions.
Give yourself time. Finding a job is going to take discipline and persistence. It will also take time. The average job search now takes about 5 months according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. You can’t expect everything to fall in place the first month you’re out — particularly when even people with advanced degrees and no criminal record are having a hard time. So set up a routine that you can keep at for awhile. Then work to develop your support network and use it. Follow up on job openings, see your employment counselor and remember it’s a numbers game. Keep at it long enough and the payoff will come.
How about you? Any other tips on what has worked in your job search? I’d love to hear them.