This week I got a chance to visit the local Career One-Stop employment center in Falls Church, VA. It’s one of the first places we recommend to ex-offenders, since these federally funded centers — which are located in all 50 states — offer a variety of services to help jobseekers. I’ve spoken to the staff there on several occasions, but never seen the offices myself. Fortunately, I had Manager Trang Montgomery as my guide, so I was able to get plenty of questions answered.
What can career one-stops do for ex-offenders? Can they find me a job?
It’s important to understand that these one-stop centers were set up by the U.S. Department of Labor to serve all people looking for work. Shelves on one wall hold information for people returning to the workforce, laid off workers, young workers and even people looking to start their own business, so they don’t specialize in ex-offenders or any kind of jobseeker. “”It’s important to have the right expectations when you come in,” Montgomery says. “We don’t want people to get disappointed. We can’t just make a call and get you work. But we can help you in your search and provide the resources.”
What resources does the center provide?
Do I need an appointment?
The center is open M-F from 8:30 to 5:00 p.m. and you’re free to just walk in. There’s a receptionist out front to assist you with questions, and there are computer terminals immediately to the left where you can enter your name and information as well as the services you are interested in. If you’d like to see a counselor you are required to sign up for an appointment — these are first-come, first-served and based on availability. If you show up at 2:00 and there’s already a long waiting list, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to see someone that day. More intensive counseling is available on a limited basis, but typically only for low-income individuals and Montgomery notes there’s a long wait to see a caseworker.
You are welcome to stay at the office as long as you want for research and job-related activities, including using the phones for setting up interviews, printing out resumes and making copies, even faxing information to employers. The only requirement is that you conduct yourself as you would in any business environment and are respectful of the other jobseekers there.
Are there places where I can get more in-depth counseling from someone who understands the challenges faced by people with criminal records?
Yes. OAR and other community-based groups that work specifically with ex-offenders, are often the best place to start, notes Montgomery. These organizations are more likely to have the funding to work with you in depth. In Northern, VA, for example, OAR conducts workshops and will assign you a caseworker to assist you in your employment search. These groups often have contacts with sympathetic employers who will give you a chance. That said, it still pays to cast a wide net, which makes stopping by a Career One Stop center a good idea. Through Virginia-based Skillsource, which runs the center, there is an Offender Transition Initiative, which works with employers to find workers seeking a second chance.
Can the Career One-Stop provide me with a list of employers who hire ex-offenders?
Yes and no. While walking around the office, I did in fact, find a handout featuring employers who have hired ex-offenders. But Montgomery recommended caution in relying on it. First, just because a company was open to hiring one ex-offender doesn’t mean they make a practice of it. Second, these lists can become quickly outdated. It’s better for you to work on getting an employer interested in you for your skills first and then hopefully the business owner will be willing to overlook your background.
I’m looking to start my own business. Is there any assistance the center can give me?
Yes. Counselors can point you to resources you in setting up as small business. In fact, a new program being piloted by the U.S. Department of Labor works specifically with budding entrepreneurs. To qualify you must be at least 45 years old and have a business idea. If you are selected for the program, which is done randomly to meet federal requirements, you will receive assistance developing your business plan, learning about regulations and obtaining licenses to start your business. So far 35 people have gone through the program and a handful have developed successful businesses. One of them, according to Montgomery, was an ex-offender.
I tried one of these places before, but got nowhere. Why should I bother?
Finding a job is a numbers game and it’s largely about persistence, whatever your background. The more people who know you’re looking, the better your chances. So why not give it a shot. What have you got to lose?