Category Archives: job training

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   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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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, criminal records, education ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, job training, personal responsibility

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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Filed under adult education, education ex-offenders, job search ex-offenders, job training, second chances, starting over, training ex-offenders, training for ex-offenders, unemployment

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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Filed under breaking the law, companies hiring ex-offenders, education ex-offenders, ex-offender psychology, inspiration, job search ex-offenders, job training, reentry, reentry resources, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility, Uncategorized

Happy graduation: School’s out!

MyEmployability Skills  class just ended, so I’ll be taking a break until the new school year.   A break from teaching, that is, since I use some of my  downtime to research programs and issues that might be of interest to the formerly incarcerated and those who work with them.  

Next week, in addition to a Straight Talk guest post, from Cleveland, OH- based blogger and reentry advocate James E. Walker Jr., I’ll also be looking at the status of the “ban the box” campaign.  This is the initiative that has already successfully removed or is in the process of removing the question : “Have you ever been convicted of a felony? from applications in nearly 30 cities, states and counties. 

I’ll also be getting ready for the Community Reentry and Expungement Summit 2010.  It will be hosted by the Public Defender Service here in Washington, DC on June 30, and offer information on housing, vocational training, jobs and reentry services in the area.  Attorneys will also  offer legal advice on record-sealing and expungement, which is an area where I always receive questions.    I promise to report back on what I learn.  So stay tuned…..

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Filed under ex-offenders education, expungement, job search ex-offenders, job training, jobs ex-offenders, reentry resources, training for ex-offenders

More jobs to say goodbye to…

The New York Times has a good  article on jobs that won’t be coming back even after the recession is over.  It tells the story of Cynthia Norton , a 52-year-old former administrative assistant who hasn’t been able to get a similar position since she was laid off two years ago — this despite sending out more than 100 resumes. Instead, she’s been working at Walmart for a third of her former salary.

The writer’s point  is that Norton’s difficulties have less to do with the bad economy than the fact that, as I’ve noted before, many clerical and other jobs — travel agents, manufacturing, data entry –are being eliminated because they can be easily automated or done overseas.

The story goes  right to the  heart of  what many ex-offenders must deal with as more  lower-skilled but decent paying jobs disappear.  What I don’t get is why the  Obama administration continues to  downplay the permanent loss of these  jobs due to structural changes in the economy.

As I often tell my students,  certain doors are going to be closed to you, and it’s better to  know that at the outset.  Individuals who were sentenced for drug offenses aren’t going to get jobs in medical offices.   If you stole money from your last employer, you’re unlikely to be hired as an accountant.  Petty larceny?  You can probably forget the job as a bank teller.

So why can’t the government be as straight with us?  After all, their own statistics support declines in certain occupations and even spell out the reasons why.  And it isn’t just low-skilled jobs, either.   Take computer programming.  Many people believe  having a background in information technology (IT) is a golden ticket.  But it really depends where your expertise is.  And right now the demand for computer programmers isn’t exactly growing.  In fact, since peaking in 1999,  the number of computer programming jobs in the U.S. has actually declined by nearly a third –529,000 to 394,000.   Current projections see the number of positions going down  by 3 percent  through 2018.

What gives?   In part the fall-off  is due to advances in programming languages and tools, as well as the growing ability of users to write their own programs.  In addition, these jobs are very easy to outsource to places like India where programmers are a good deal cheaper.  Instead, the demand has moved to software  engineers, who design and develop software for users and systems.  The number of these positions is expected to increase by as much as 32  percent between 2008 and 2019.

The takeaway here: Be prepared for the fact that not being able to get a job may have less to do with you and your record, than the fact that certain jobs are disappearing and/or morphing into something else.  These days everyone is having to learn something new — so don’t feel bad if you need to update your skills.  Fortunately, the government is also putting a lot of money into retraining, so you may qualify.

But before you set your heart on a certain job or career, do your research.  Talk to real people.   You may be surprised.  When I was over at my local  Career One Stop Center recently, manager Trang Montgomery told me that despite declines in many manufacturing jobs, there were areas where there  were going to be shortages.   Welding, for example.  Yes, apparently this is an specialty where employers are having difficulties finding skilled workers.  If this interests you, you might want to check out training and apprenticeship opportunities.

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Filed under economy, job search ex-offenders, job training, jobs, recession ex-offenders, skills, unemployment

Reentry isn’t always pretty

I got inspired yesterday looking at some gorgeous pictures on fellow Blogathoner Tracy Doerr’s site — and while navigating the miserable construction zone that swallowed my neighborhood.   I live just outside of Washington, D.C., in an area that will someday (that’s 2013 or later, if we’re lucky) boast its own connection to the Metro subway system.

In the interim, what we primarily boast about is who’s found the best route to avoid the newest detour, road closing, gigantic hole that appeared in the street overnight or whatever surprise disruption this hope-for-a-better-life-in-the-future business has thrown our way.  Witness what greeted me as I attempted to get on the road I usually take to the grocery store.

That got me thinking about the process of reentry.  In a lot of ways, rebuilding a life after getting out of prison is a construction (some would say, reconstruction)  project of its own.

  • It’s not always pretty. In fact, you might start again with nothing, not even clothing for an interview, let alone somewhere to live.
  • You won’t be able to do it alone. With a project this size, you’ll have to ask for help and have the humility to try to learn new behaviors.
  • It can be riddled with stops and starts. That person who promised you a job, for example, can’t deliver and no one else is hiring.  Then out of nowhere a training opportunity becomes available.
  • You might have to take a few detours. Yes, some roads and doors will be closed.  It will require flexibility, forgiveness and the ability  to marshal your resources and find a new path.
  • There may be some repair work to do along the way. You may have relationships to rebuild and amends to make to people in your life before you can move forward with your own on sound footing.

But if keep your goals in mind and work towards a better life, than your vision,  like this rendering of my future neighborhood, might someday be a reality.

Hopefully, a better one.

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Filed under goal-setting, hope for ex-offenders, job training, reentry, starting over

Why chain gangs can be a good thing

For a lot of people, the  idea of putting prisoners to work in ” chain gangs” evokes images of  Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke.  Or maybe Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s no holds-barred  programs in Arizona – where even female inmates are shackled on the job site.   So I was  happy to see the Fairfax County Sheriff’s Office  Community Labor Force  get some publicity in today’s Washington Post. 

A number of jail inmates I’ve worked with have taken part in the Fairfax program, which allows  non-violent offenders to  be assigned to work crews that do jobs like  landscaping, clean-up and  trash removal around the community.  In return they get time off for good behavior, plus the chance to do  useful work and develop employment skills.  The article noted that these workers also serve a need, like  helping the budget-stretched Virginia Department of Transportation provide services it could not otherwise afford.  They also manage to do it without  handcuffs or chains, and unless you’re familiar with prison garb, you might not even recognize their green jumpsuits and orange vests.  As one worker told the Post reporter with some pride, “We get a lot of people asking for our business cards…” 

Sadly, some of the responses to this article were predictable, with a few commenters decrying the work program as “slave labor” and others talking about how it takes jobs from unemployed people to reward criminals.  It got me wondering if the strong reaction is  due  to seeing these offenders out in the community.  After all, most state and federal prisons require employees to work and pay them a pittance.  Jail employees often work as trustees in the kitchen or in sanitation, and no one gripes about that.  

Regardless, my experience with offenders in these programs has been largely positive. In fact, I think this type of work-release should be a mandatory part of most  sentences.  Here’s why:

It’s constructive.  The punitive part of incarceration is being locked away and having to think about what you’ve done.  It’s the collateral damage people don’t see that really hampers an individual’s ability to  lead a productive life post-release;  the loss of employment and a place in the larger world, erosion of skills and community ties and the brain fog that come with days without purpose.   Work-release programs can help temper this decline and do much to prepare offenders for eventual release and/or highlight issues they might face.  I  see it in  my working students —  that energy that comes from accomplishment and the renewed feeling that they can actually achieve something.

It encourages reliability/real world accountability.  This isn’t play work. It’s the real thing.   Just as with a real job, if you screw up, you’re essentially fired.  One of my students found this out when she was caught with a cellphone in her purse at the animal shelter where she was on work-release.   She not only lost that job, but all the good time she had accrued as well.  Plus she found herself back in a cell all day long.

It is not slave labor, but rather a way to re pay a debt to society.   With the annual cost of incarceration running   $20,000 plus per person, any way offenders can offset this bill should be considered.  Currently, about 80 percent of prisoners do some sort of work for just this reason.   Plus “good time” days mean less time inside, so by working,  the individual is actually earning a shorter sentence.  

It’s actual employment experience.   For some inmates, in fact, work-release  may even be the only legitimate employment they’ve ever had.  In every class I teach, I always have a couple of students who quietly confess that they have never held a job in their adult lives.  Whether this is because of  lack of opportunity, skills, education, or simply that crime was easier, the best way to turn their lives around –  and reduce the risk of their returning  – is to start building real world experience and references.

It is a net benefit for society.   Face it, a job you have to go to jail to get  is not a reward.  No one willingly trades their freedom to pick up trash along the highway.  In fact, many of the jobs offenders fill are often ones no one else wants.  The inmates who were bussed in to clear snow from Fairfax County school sidewalks this past winter, for example, were used as a last resort only after school officials had exhausted appeals to staff, parents and the larger community.

Readers, what’s your experience?   Are work-release programs worthwhile?  Have they been useful to you?

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Filed under companies hiring ex-offenders, employment assistance ex-offenders, employment ex-offenders, job training, starting over

Some jobs to say goodbye to…

I know some of you get tired of hearing me go on about  the importance of getting an education and learning new skills.  But in doing some research last week, I stumbled upon the list of the 30 jobs expected to decline the most in the future.  And you know what?  A surprising number of these disappearing occupations are the very ones many ex-offenders I work with hope to get.   So I thought it might be worth listing a few — not to be a downer — but as further evidence that I’m not making this up.  To be smart, you may need to plan ahead for a very different future.

Jobs                                                   Projected Decline 2008 to 2018

1.  Admistrative Assistants                                                        11.6 %

2. File Clerks                                                                                     23.4%

3. Shipping and Receiving                                                            6.6%

4.  Telemarketers                                                                          11.1%

5. Packers and Packagers                                                          4.5%

6.  Data Entry Keyers                                                                 6.1%

7. Switchboard Operators                                                      10.9%

8. Order Clerks                                                                            26.1%

9. Information and Record  Clerks                                      11.8%

10. Machine Feeders and Offbearers                                 22.2%

The average job is expected to grow 9 to 10 percent over the next ten years, so even a 6.6 percent decline  in the number of shipping jobs is significant.

The only industries where low- and semi-skilled jobs are still increasing?  Food service, custodial work and some service jobs.

But don’t take my word for it.   Check out the list from the Bureau of Labor Statistics here.   You can also look at the 30 fastest growing occupations here. With the exception of about four categories, including home health care aides and personal aides, most of these newer jobs require at least a two-year associate’s degree.

So at the risk of repeating myself,  think twice before you rule out getting additional education.  Even if school wasn’t your thing, there are vocational training and certificate programs that are very practical and job-specific.   Completing one of them could mean the difference between getting a job you can grow in and not getting a job at all.   And as I’ve noted earlier, such training is often more affordable than you think.


Filed under employment ex-offenders, ex-offenders education, job training

Where books are scary

Believe it or not, one of the places is Virginia, which recently instituted  a ban the books campaign in all state correctional facilities.

Yes, it sounded a little crazy to me too.  But apparently a free program that’s been providing prisoners with something to read for the past two decades has become too dangerous for VA authorities. And too much work. Or so the Quest Institute, a non-profit that runs “Books Behind Bars,” was told last month by prison officials. While declining to provide details, VA DOC spokesman Larry Traylor told the Washington Post, there were growing concerns that someone could smuggle “contraband to a prisoner by secreting it in a book.” Think Andy Dufresne’s rock hammer (above) in the Shawshank Redemption. Except, oops – that was actually brought in with the laundry by another inmate. Dufresne only hid his escape tool in the Bible after he was back in his cell.

In the case of the prison book program, the folks at Quest think it was a stray paper clip and CD that accidentally made it into a Virginia shipment. Not a good thing, certainly, but not a rock hammer, either. I’m all for security concerns and safety – but inmates quietly reading vs. bored felons gossiping, gangbanging or worse? Who would you rather supervise? Or see released in the near future? Even in Virginia — a state known for making prisoners as uncomfortable as possible — passing out books seems less pampering than common sense, particularly when the most frequently requested volumes are the dictionary, the Bible and the Koran. Coming on top of last year’s discontinuation of college courses in some facilities, this new ban is just silly, not to mention counter-productive.

Now I know many correctional facilities still have their own small libraries. I also know the pickings can be slim. One of my students recently requested a thesaurus because she wanted to build up her vocabulary for job interviews. There wasn’t one in the library so the librarian shared her own, which unfortunately dated back to WW II. A sympathetic guard ultimately printed out a Word-of-the-Day from her computer and gave it to the inmate. Don’t we want to encourage offenders like her who want to educate themselves and hopefully finish their terms more focused and able to get a job?  Particularly when it costs us nothing?

What’s been your experience? Anyone benefit from reading while incarcerated? What books meant a lot to you?

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Filed under education ex-offenders, job training, life in prison