Category Archives: job search ex-offenders

Reentry updates: prison reform, women ex-offenders and the perils of Facebook

There’s a lot going on in the justice/reentry arena these days.  Here’s a quick update of what I’ve been following:

 Justice reform: will we or won’t we?

Last month, I wrote about Senator Jim Webb’s newly updated prison reform bill.  Alas, soon after, Webb announced he wouldn’t be running for a second term.  Which leaves me wondering: will a combination of  the Senator’s lame duck status and Congress’ need to focus on more pressing issues (wars, spending cuts, etc.) , push national justice reform again to the back burner?

Or will the action, as some – like the folks at Right on Crime – suggest, come more at the state level?  That’s certainly been the trend lately.    Last week, Georgia approved a bill that would set up a similar commission that will recommend reforms to that state’s prison system.   Meanwhile, the House in Oklahoma passed what’s being called the “most significant prison reform package in decades.”  Among other measures, the bill would make terms run concurrently and enhance the ability for sentences to be served within the community.

In addition, Ray Hill’s  the Prison Show  in Houston will be putting some artistic emphasis behind the need for change in our justice system when he hosts the Prison Reform Film Festival next month.

Women’s issues

I’ve worked almost exclusively with female offenders over the past couple of years.  So  I know their experiences in the justice system are very different than those of men, who make up the majority of offenders.   So I was happy to see NPR’s Kojo Nnamdi Show devote a segment recently to the unique challenges women face in terms of serving sentences and reentrying society.  There was also an interesting piece on Russian prison reforms are helping women. 

Facebook Follies

In my employment skills classes I caution students to be careful about the personal information they share on sites  like Facebook or Myspace. It’s standard procedure for many employers to turn to social networking pages or places like  Twitter  to find out more about a job candidate or who they’re  hanging out with.   Everyone’s heard stories about how ill-advised boasts or drunken photos have cost people jobs .

Nor are  employers or job recruiters the only people who might be looking at what you post.   As a recent article suggests supervision officers may soon find it easy to track someone’s post-release behavior online, including whether he or she is still associating with criminals.   This particular article even goes so far as to suggest how probation and parole officers might document what they find  in order to have evidence in a revocation hearing.

Another reason it might be worth keeping an eye on your site, and what you and others post there.

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Filed under background checks, employment ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, prison reform, reentry, starting over, women ex-offenders

Can you get professional license with a felony?

 Q:  I committed a b-felony arson in 2004 when I was having psychological issues from undiagnosed bipolar. I am clear and in college again, but I didn’t continue pursuing my psychology I started before the incident because I assumed I could not be licensed with a felony. I am currently in Computer Information Technology at Purdue and am not sure I wasn’t better off in psychology. What are the options for a felon being licensed in a state like Indiana? Haven’t found any straight answers online. What do you recommend? CIT is a more in-demand degree, so I figured I’d have a better shot in a field in need like computers. I liked psychology, but I want to get a degree I will have the best chance of getting a job with. I’m not sure where I want to focus my efforts.

A:   First of all, congratulations for moving on with your life and continuing to pursue your education!  That’s no small accomplishment and you should take pride in the fact that you’ve addressed your own issues and remained focused on the future.

As to your question: if psychology is what you love,  don’t give up your dream.  Getting licensed as a psychologist, even with a felony, is not impossible.  Dr. Paul Fauteck, an ex-offender turned forensic psychologist, who has answered questions on this blog, is living proof of that.   I also checked with the Indiana State Psychology Board and although drug offenses might be a bar to getting licensed,  there are no specific provisions in the statute that would automatically disqualify someone with your record.   Further, officials also consider how much time has passed since a conviction and what you have done since then. To get more information, I’d recommend  sending them a note detailing your specific circumstances at the email address provided.     

Note that  licensing requirements for psychologists and other professions vary by state.  In Texas, for example, a felony would bar you from practicing as a psychologist.  In California, a felony might get in the way as well, unless you have obtained a certificate of rehabilitation.  So you might want to check out the National Directory of Psychologists for information about licensing requirements in other states.

That said,  whether you stick with Computer Information Technology or go back to psychology is entirely up to you.  They’re both good options.  Certainly, CIT is a hot field and if that’s what you prefer, it may be easier initially to find a job.  But there are plenty of positions out there for psychologists, as well.   I guess what I’m trying to say is that — no matter how bad the economy is — finding a job quickly shouldn’t be your main criteria. I’m  no career counselor, but as someone who went into accounting because it was practical, I can attest to how miserable it can be to work in a field you don’t enjoy for the sake of money or security. 

So my advice would be to follow your heart on this one.  Good luck and please let us know what you decide.

And readers, have any of you struggled with these kinds of choices, or licensing issues?  How did you handle them?  What’s been your experience?

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Questions NOT to ask during an interview

Right now we’re discussing how to answer interview questions in my class.   It’s always a challenging part of the course since talking about your past can be difficult if you have a criminal record. 

I’ve dealt before with the importance of knowing what you’re going to say and being honest. 

But what about the part of the interview where the employer turns the tables and asks if you have questions?   While I recommend having at least a couple to ask, there are also some areas where you should never go.  Below are a few of  these questions and the reasons to avoid them.  

 1.  How much does the job pay?  Save it for after an offer is made.  At this point you should be focused on the job, not the money. 

2. What are the benefits?    Again, post- offer is better.

3. How much vacation time will I get?    You haven’t even started the job and you’re asking about time off?

4. Can I work from home?      This is a privilege you earn after you’ve demonstrated what you can do.

5.  What kind of company is this?   Shows you haven’t done your homework.

6.  What do you like least about this employer?     Could demonstrate a negative attitude.

7. How much help will I get?     Sounds lazy.

8.  How did I do?      Puts employer on the spot.

9.  I don’t have any questions.      Sounds like you’re not interested enough in the job.

What should you ask?   Questions about what the training will be like, future expansion plans for the company, routes to advancement and the interviewer’s personal experience with the  company are all fair game.  Many candidates also ask if there is anything to indicate they might not be a good fit for the job.  The answer may give you an opportunity to refute any doubts the employer may have.

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Finding a job with a felony: a success story

What does it take to get a job with a record?   When I teach, I allude to factors like  knowing your strengths, having a plan, dealing with setbacks and never giving up.  But it’s not often that I get an opportunity to show this in action.

Recently, however, a reader wrote in with a story that allows me do just that.  Although he didn’t want his name used, this man, who I’ll call Thomas, agreed to let me share his experiences on the chance that they might help someone else.

When I first heard from Thomas he admitted he was desperate:  

 I’m hoping maybe you can suggest something that I’m overlooking ….I ‘ve now been a year and a half with no job.  I can’t even get a reply to my Pizza Hut delivery driver application.  Right now it is 4:25 AM and I can’t sleep because my nine year marriage is about to collapse primarily because of the job situation…..

Thomas had been convicted nearly 20 years ago.  He’d done his time, made reparations to the victims and then moved overseas.   There, miraculously, he says, he was  hired at the second place he applied for a job, even after he’d told the employer about his  conviction.  Within two years he’d been promoted to supervisor and then to a more senior position.  This led to a better job at a Fortune 500 company. 

His troubles began when he moved back to the U.S.   Even with his work experience, no one would hire him.   When he wrote me he’d given up on his former profession and was considering going to truck driving school.   He’d found a cheaper program in a nearby state and  gotten a small veteran’s scholarship and a  loan to pay for part of it.  Yet he still wasn’t sure how he could afford living expenses.  He wasn’t writing to ask for money, but to see if I had any ideas on how he could finance it.  

I sent a note of encouragement and some suggestions.  He thanked me and I didn’t expect to hear from him again.   

Two days later, he emailed.  He’d called the school and gotten an offer of work study.   He’d contacted parishes and re-entry organizations in the area to find leads for a place to stay. He figured he could cut meal costs by relying on local food pantries, use free internet at the library and cut travel costs by using http://www.gasbuddy.com   He’d also investigated trucking firms to see which ones were receptive to hiring ex-offenders.  His only concern was he might have to hold off till the next class sesssion because time was running out and he didn’t want to set himself up for failure.   So he also got in touch with some former colleagues he hadn’t talked to in years and three of them agreed to be references.  Then he began looking for jobs.

Two weeks later, I received this note:

I got a job offer yesterday.  After reading a study that said 90% of people would not consider hiring someone with a violent felony conviction, I was getting pretty discouraged, but then it dawned on me that if 90% don’t that still means 10% do…so logically then it is just a numbers game.  Assuming that the study was accurate, that means that submitting 100 applications will result in 10 people who are willing to give an ex-con a try.  I have to admit, that after 30+ “No” answers, it takes a certain amount of determination to believe that the “Yes” is still lurking out there…but it was.  Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to go all the way to 100.

 It turned out the position for which he was hired hadn’t been advertised.  He’d simply seen a new business opening and gone to apply.   “The job was one that I had no direct experience with,” he said, ” but I decided to apply anyway because what is the worst they could do…tell me “no”?”

Obviously, things didn’t happen overnight for Thomas.  But what I like about this story is that even when he was asking for help, he was helping himself. He was  researching possible options before asking for suggestions, and he kept on doing his homework afterwards.  When truck driving school seemed like it might not work, he went to Plan B, contacting references and looking around for potential jobs.  He also went beyond employment ads, contacting companies directly and ultimately finding a job that hadn’t even been advertised yet. 

My hat is off to him, and to everyone else  out there who refuses to give up.  

 Is there something you can do to jumpstart your job search today?

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Is it time to go back to school?

A former student recently contacted me with news that he was returning to school.    Yay!   As I’ve said  before, gaining additional education or skills is a great way to  boost your value in the job market.  Particularly these days,  when a surplus of applicants means employers can afford to be picky, and decent-paying  jobs you can get with just a high school diploma are fast disappearing.  

If you follow this blog, you know this is one of my favorite drums to beat.  If you’re new here, you might want to check out:  Five reasons training may be the answer for ex-offenders and others looking to make a fresh start.

That said, with the unemployment rate at 9.6 percent (and well into the double digits  in some sectors and  parts of the country),  training alone won’t guarantee you a job.  I’ve worked with a number of people with criminal records who’ve complained their certificates and additional degrees haven’t opened the doors they expected.   So before you jump back into the classroom, here are some things to consider  to help ensure you do it the right way:  

Look for programs that offer work experience or require an internship. 

The best way to get hired is to show an employer what you can do. Perhaps that’s why some of the strongest training and degree programs require that you do on-the-job training or an internship.   A 2008 survey by the National Association of Colleges and Employers found companies offered jobs to nearly 70 percent of their interns.   In addition, nearly a third of the new college graduates that employers hired in 2007 were from their internship programs.  Even allowing that the recession has likely brought those numbers down some, that’s still a pretty good plug  for the benefits of getting your foot in the door early.  And even if an internship doesn’t lead to a job, you’ve still got a solid professional reference to use to find your next position.   

Do your homework

Don’t sign up for the first program that turns up in your junk mail or on the wall of  a subway train.  Ask a career counselor or job placement expert at your local state employment or CareerOneStop center for recommendations.  Look at accredited colleges or universities, or certificate programs offered by legitimate education and training firms.  Many online courses are also good, but be aware that online scams abound, so do your research.  Don’t be afraid to ask how a school’s  students  have fared. What are their job placement rates?  Can you talk to previous students about their experiences?   Make sure you know what you’re getting for your money.  The FTC, for example, has identified a number of scams that entice you to by software to train yourself for  a new career in medical billing and coding.  What they don’t tell you is that without connections or certification, you typically can’t find clients so it’s difficult to make money.     So again, buyer beware.

Be realistic

Can you devote the time you need to taking a course right now?   Can you afford it — both in terms of time and money?  Do you have an adequate understanding of the work your class(es) will entail and the number of years you might have to labor at lower levels before your training pays off?   When you’re eager to get started, it’s easy to overlook these questions, but doing so can lead to disappointment. Additionally, many people  coming out of the legal system  must contend with financial obligations like fines, court costs, mandated child support or restitution, which can make paying for and/or attending training impractical in the short-run, even if you can obtain a grant.  My former student had to work two jobs for nearly a year to pay his debts before he had enough money to consider taking a course.  But since he took the long-term view and didn’t expect everything to happen instantly, things worked out.    

Put the work in 

My sister recently started training to become a medical assistant.  Right off, she ran into fellow classmates copying others’ answers, failing to do the homework or simply not putting the effort in.   This won’t cut it come test time,  and it’s certainly not going to work when you’re being asked to assist a doctor in a medical procedure.  What’s more, when instructors hear of possible employment opportunities, they’re going to mention them to the hardest working students, not the slackers.  So if you’re too busy with work and other obligations to concentrate on a course now, or you’re simply not interested in the subject matter, do yourself a favor and save your time and money.

Readers how about you?  I’d love to hear from folks who have gone on to get additional training.  How did you do it?  What’s worked for you?  Is there anything you now would do differently?

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Another employer who gets it…

I’m caught up with other projects this week, but would be remiss in not posting this story about Eric Smith, a carpenter in St. Paul, Minnesota who has no qualms about hiring people with criminal records.  Why?  It’s been his experience that if a  person is hardworking and good at what he does, his background has no relevance to the job. Smith says:

I tend to hire people I like personally — no indicator of talent, but I have to spend a lot of time with them. I’ve discovered over the years that I’m drawn to people who have a little bit of darkness in them — people who have peeked over the edge, maybe even gone over it, at some point in their lives.

People with this kind of background are not uncommon in remodeling, probably because it’s one of the dwindling number of mentally challenging careers that require almost nothing in the way of qualifications except a strong back, common sense and a willingness to work hard.

For people who’ve been unable to fit into standardized corporate slots, or haven’t passed the tests or graduated at the top of their class, construction can offer a rare second or third chance.

I love the wisdom in this.  You can read the whole story here:  The Healing Power of Construction Work

Enjoy!

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Will Tim Riggins be able to find a job after he’s released?

I usually try to keep my facts and fiction fairly separate on this blog.  But watching this season’s final  episode of “Friday Night Lights,” I was struck by how well the show captured the character of so many who end up serving time:  good people who’ve just made very bad decisions. 

With Tim Riggins, the troubled, but talented football heartbreaker from Dillon, Texas, you always got the sense that here was a guy who could go either way.  Abandoned by his parents, he was essentially raised by his nere-do-well brother Billy, who’s forever  coming up with get-rich-quick schemes that skirt the edge of legality.  In the first couple of seasons, Riggins weaknesses for alcohol and women, as well as his tendency to take the path of least resistance  were a great source of drama, but more often than not his downfall.  

Tim Riggins in happier times

This year, he’s graduated from football stardom and headed off to college to finally make something of himself. Only college isn’t for him and soon he’s back in Dillon, living in a trailer owned by a cocktail waitress he hooked up with and working in a repair shop with his brother. When he finds out Billy is trafficking in stolen cars on the side, he knows it’s illegal, but can’t resist one last chance to make a quick buck. 

Same old Tim, right? Were any of us surprised when the police showed up?

But here’s where the writers did something interesting.  Yes, Tim is caught, but he’s also already changed more than even he has realized.  For one, he’s spent the year resisting the high schooler who’s been throwing herself at him.  He also refused to take advantage of her mother.  And in the ultimate act of self-sacrifice, he takes the fall for both himself and his brother, so Billy can stay with his wife and his newborn.  In other words, as he throws off his old “football star” persona to begin serving his time in jail, he’s already on the path to redemption.  

It will be interesting to see what happens next.  What will Riggins do after he gets out?  Will he be able to find a job?  I know that actor  Taylor Kitsch, who plays Riggins,  has gone on to feature films might not be back next year, which is too bad.  It would be interesting to see the writers explore his reentry.   Perhaps they could shed a similarly realistic light on the challenge of starting over. 

Anyway, if you haven’t seen the episode, you can catch it here for a few more weeks. 

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As an additional note:  this will probably be my last posting for the summer.  It’s time to take some time off for fun and family.  In the interim, I hope you all enjoy the rest of the summer.   See you back here in September.

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Ban the box update

As I noted in my last post, this week is devoted to checking on the status of legislation affecting  ex-offenders.

One of the more effective strategies — and one that seems to be  gaining steam —  is the  “Ban the Box” grassroots campaign.  The box, of course,  is that section of the employment application that asks about whether you have a criminal record.  The question can come in a variety of forms as  blogger James Walker notes in his very comprehensive post. Sometimes it’s even a series of questions, as I discovered when my son recently applied at our local grocery store for a job as a bag boy.  These are usually yes/no questions, typically followed by a space where you’re asked to explain any charges in further detail.

The problem is that once you check “Yes,” your application often goes no further.  One human resources professional recently told me  that in cases where someone answered yes in an online application at his former employer, the application was automatically deleted. 

Since 2003, some 30 cities states and counties have eliminated the box and the question from applications.  These include:

    Hawaii (1998), Minnesota (2009) and New Mexico, this year.  Just last month,  Connecticut passed a law removing the box from applications for public jobs.  Bills are also pending in Wisconsin and Nebraska.   Major cities that have banned the box for government jobs include San Francisco, Chicago, Boston and Minneapolis/St. Paul.   

The National Employment Law Project offers a comprehensive update by state and city.  The Safer Foundation also provides a detailed list of recent legislation. 

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The humility challenge

A pedestal is as much a prison as any small, confined space.

— writer and feminist Gloria Steinem

The student was a young woman, not long out of high school.  And she seemed extremely sure of herself, which might have been why she was struggling with this particular job interview question.

“But I don’t have any weaknesses.”  She looked me straight in the eye.

In previous classes, we’d discussed the reason employers often ask about what you consider your strengths and weaknesses during interviews.  We’d talked about how everyone has weaknesses and how bosses often look for a measure of self-knowledge and maturity in your responses.  The key to answering this question, according to most career experts, is using it to highlight an area or trait you know you need to improve, and hopefully to demonstrate how you’ve either worked to correct it, or learned to compensate for your shortcomings.

A classmate, for example, had offered that she had struggled on occasion to learn things from manuals.  “But I’m very hands-on and I’ve demonstrated repeatedly that I learn quickly by doing.”

“I tend to take on too much responsibility,” said another.  “But over time I’ve become much better at delegating some of that work to others.”

This particular student, however, was stymied.

“There must be some area where you’d like to improve,” I offered.

She thought for a moment, then smiled slightly.   “I’m too competitive,” she said.  “I just always have to be the best.”

It wasn’t necessarily a bad answer, particularly in a society that loves victory as much as ours.  So just to see where she’d go with it, I asked her — as a recruiter no doubt would — how her competitiveness had hurt her.

Again, she looked perplexed.

“What about times when you couldn’t be the best,” I suggested.  “How have you handled that? ” What about academics?  Had she excelled there and been competitive too? Or had that been an area where she had a harder time?

“Grades didn’t matter,” she said.  “I didn’t go half the time.  That’s how it was if you were an athlete.”

Say what you will about this answer, she was honest at least.  And hardly alone in her attitude.  One of the challenges of revealing your weaknesses is that there’s seemingly no upside to it. Our culture doesn’t just love winners, we worship them.   We put them on a pedestal where they can do no wrong. We make allowances.  We go out of our way to revere “specialness” and ignore anything that might smack of less than perfect.

Then we expect that somewhere along the way, the same people that we’ve elevated are going to become introspective and acquire some humility. We expect the kids who look up to them to understand this.  At the same time, we seldom teach it, we don’t emphasize it.  Yet as a character trait, humility is as essential as perseverance — for all of us, but particularly for those looking to start their lives over.

For one, a sense of entitlement, lack of humility, feeling that you don’t have to play by society’s rules — spin it as you will — is often a direct contributor to criminal activity.  Researchers  long ago identified a distorted feeling of being “special” or above the law as a critical component of the criminal mindset.

Secondly, explaining your past to the general public is a humbling experience, as countless ex-offenders will attest.  As a former felon you may be forced to take a job you consider beneath your abilities because it’s the only way to feed your family.  You may be denied jobs for which you’d be perfect.  People may doubt what you say and question your character.

Dealing with this is going to require not only an ability to accept your situation and persevere, but as James Walker noted so eloquently in his recent guest post, the humility to acknowledge your mistakes, and yes, your weaknesses.

Otherwise, as Gloria Steinem observed, you do risk trading one prison for another, don’t you?

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Employers, what will it take to get you to hire ex-offenders?

The federal agency that supervises offenders on probation and parole in Washington, DC  isn’t going to tiptoe around this question anymore.  Instead, at a time when a bad economy has made finding a job with a record even more difficult, officials at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency have started flat-out asking employers whether they’d consider bringing a former offender on board, and if not what might be done to change their mind.

It’s all part of a new media campaign designed to bring awareness to the fact that not everyone with a criminal record is the same.  On any given day, the CSOSA’s Community Supervision Program is actively responsible for more than 16,000 offenders, many of whom are alcohol and drug-free, skilled, employment- ready and have put their past behaviors well behind them, says Leonard Sipes, the agency’s senior public affairs specialist.  Yet, only about 53 percent of those individuals are currently working — a statistic CSOSA aims to improve by confronting the issue head on.

” There’s a certain point where you’re not going to make an omelet unless you  scramble some eggs,”  Snipes said.  “So we decided to take a risk.    What do we have to lose by trying and giving businesses a voice? Sure, some will be harsh and negative, some will stereotype – but if  we don’t engage in this conversation things will stay the same.  Hopefully by doing this we’ll  open the doors for one person to get hired and then maybe for two more the next time and build from there.”

The CSOSA will run video and radio interviews with employers on  its website and YouTube.   While some employers have been encouraging,  many  have told Sipes that they simply don’t want to hire ex-offenders because they’re worried about having to deal with trouble.  “They want ironclad guarantees that the person will show up and do the job without creating problems,” he says.

Often, the companies want CSOSA to stay involved with the individual, so its caseworkers can help handle any situations that might arise.  Typically, the agency will refer only the most employment ready, mature and reliable individuals in order to avoid such problems, but they are willing to work with the employer to help ensure things go smoothly.  It’s in everyone’s interest, Sipes says, since studies show getting offenders back to work reduces recidivism and improves  public safety.  Employers who hire ex-cons can also take advantage of incentives, including  tax credits and federal bonding.

What can ex-offenders do to improve their chances?  Feedback to CSOSA so far indicates most employers are simply looking for someone with a good attitude.  Skills aren’t always as important, as they will often teach the right person, Sipes notes.  “If you  present well and  can say, ‘ I’m going to be here every day and I’m going to be a benefit to your company and all I need is an opportunity,’ —  a lot of people caught up in the criminal justice system have a hard time expressing that, but that’s what employers want to hear.”

It will be interesting to see what bringing this conversation to the surface will do.  Readers, how about you?  If you know companies that hire or don’t hire ex-offenders, what are their reasons?  Do you think more employers can be convinced to give former felons a second chance?

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