It can be challenging to get a job when you get out of prison, but there is a lot you can do to make sure you secure an income quickly. Here are a few steps you can take to get started.
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Identify Strengths and Challenges
Before you begin the job search, take some time to make a list of all the things you have going for you. This will help guide you as you craft a new resume and search for a job. You won’t necessarily put everything you come up with on your resume – this list is just for you. But having some notes at the ready can serve as inspiration along the way. Here’s what to include:
1. Skills, trades, and languages
When you begin looking for a job, it’s important to know what your “hard skills” are. Your hard skills include just about anything you can learn in a classroom or training program, but could also be things that you learned informally from family and friends. Be creative as you brainstorm. Did your grandmother teach you to sew? Maybe you learned carpentry skills helping your cousin install cabinets in his kitchen. Are you fluent in another language from living in another country or speaking another language at home growing up?
Other examples of hard skills:
- Shelf stocking
- Microsoft Office Suite (Word, Excel, etc.)
- Data entry
- Graphic design
- Administrative Management
- Proficiency in Spanish (or French, or Cantonese, etc.)
2. Your Job History
Write down your entire job history, including any work assignments you held while incarcerated. Don’t forget to include informal work like snow removal, dog walking, or house cleaning. This will be helpful to refer back to when you create your resume.
3. Network and Connections
One of the best ways to find a new job is through a reference from someone who can vouch for you. Make a list of friends and family members who may be able to help. If you know where they work or used to work, make a note of that too. If you had a job before you were incarcerated and are on good terms with your former boss and co-workers, include them in the list as well.
4. Social Service Organizations and Government Programs
Make sure to take advantage of services offered to formerly incarcerated people, and people who are out of work. Don’t know where to start? These organizations and resource hubs are great jumping-off points:
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- Career One Stop is a resource hub sponsored by the U.S. Department of Labor. You’ll find information on job training, resume writing, and more. They also offer a wealth of information specifically for job-seekers with a criminal conviction.
- The Center for Employment Opportunities provides people returning from prison immediate paid employment, skills training, and career support. Check to see if they operate in your city or state.
There are many organizations around the country offering services to folks who need to get a job after getting out of prison. To find services in your area, try Google searching terms like “how to get a job when you get out of prison” or “job search criminal record”.
Once you’ve identified your strengths and advantages, it’s also important to understand any obstacles you might face as you look for employment.
Laws vary widely from state to state, but in any case, it is important to know whether there are particular industries where you would face challenges in hiring. If you have a felony conviction, it is unlikely (but not impossible) that you will be able to work in healthcare, insurance, or banking. Further, whether your conviction was a felony or not, you may face challenges if the nature of your crime was relevant to a particular job. For example, if you committed a crime involving a child, you would likely be unable to work as a licensed childcare provider.
With so many different legal requirements in play across the country, it is difficult to make a blanket statement about the legal restrictions you may encounter. However, laws and regulations change often, and it may be worth applying to a job even if it seems like a long shot. Just be honest about your history. Honesty and transparency go a long way and inspire trust in potential employers.
Prepare to Apply
Even before you begin applying for jobs, make sure you’re ready to make a good first impression on potential employers.
If you have social media accounts like Facebook, Instagram, or TikTok, employers may take a peek at them to see what your online presence is like before hiring you, or even before calling you for an interview. Take a look at your privacy settings on each of your accounts and consider making it so only your friends or connections on that platform can see what you post. If you opt to keep your profiles visible to the public, consider the impression your posts could make. Photos of partying, drinking alcohol, public expressions of anger toward others, off-color jokes, or sexual comments could turn off potential employers, even if they’re only meant to be funny.
If you don’t have a LinkedIn account, creating one a good way to demonstrate that you’re serious about your professional growth. If you have at least a few connections, or “friends” on LinkedIn, it can help show that you are who you say you are, and that you are able to establish professional relationships.
Email and Voicemail
Your first communication with a potential employer should present you as professional and serious about your job search. If you don’t have an email address, you can create a Gmail account for free. Your email address should be simple and straightforward, and not contain references to your favorite movie or video game, to drugs, or to sexual jokes. If possible, use your name, or a variation of your name as your email address.
Your recorded voicemail greeting should also be simple and straightforward, stating your name and politely asking the caller to leave a message with a phone number where you can reach them.
Presenting yourself to an employer in the best light doesn’t mean changing who you are. However, there are some things to consider when planning to greet potential employers:
- Tattoos and Piercings: In recent years, many employers have become more progressive and accepting of various forms of self-expression in the workplace. However, if you feel that your tattoos or piercings may be an obstacle, you can opt to cover or remove them. If you have tattoos of gang-related symbols, or that are associated with hate groups, there are organizations that will help you have them removed for free or at a low cost. INK-nitiative and Jails-to-Jobs are great places to start.
- Clothing: Depending on the industry you hope to work in, it may be customary to dress in business attire, especially for the interview. If you’re unable to afford business attire, there are organizations across the country that offer donated clothing for job seekers. Jails-to-Jobs has a nationwide directory of such organizations.
Resume and Cover Letter
Creating a strong resume is one of the most important steps in getting a job when you get out of prison. This is where you will show hiring managers the kind of experience and skills you bring to the table. If you’ve never created a resume before, you can start with a free template. Theladders.com offers free resume templates, organized by industry.
Your job application may or may not require a cover letter, depending on the industry. If you’re applying for a job in an office, healthcare, or social services, you will likely need to include a cover letter with your application. If you’re applying for a job in a restaurant or in construction, you may not need one. Theladders.com also has some great resources to help you craft your cover letter.
Career One Stop has some helpful resources on how to create a resume that stands out.
Now is also a good time to look back at the notes where you listed your job history and hard skills. Your resume and cover letter are where you will formalize those notes and create professional documents for your job applications.
The Job Hunt
After so much preparation, you’re ready to start your job search, but where do you start?
Choose a Direction
Based on your skills and experience, what type of job do you plan to target? Decide what industry you’re going to look to first, whether that’s food service, retail, administrative, construction, healthcare, or something else.
Finding Jobs Online
These days, the vast majority of job listings are posted online. Some of the most common job search websites are:
- Flex Jobs (remote work)
- Snag a Job (hourly work – warehouse workers, grocery stock clerks, customer service)
You might also consider getting in touch with a temp agency. Temp agencies find workers for companies in need of temporary help, and those jobs sometimes lead to permanent positions. To find a temp agency in your area, search “temp agency” + your city and/or state.
Ban the Box
The Ban the Box movement, started by an organization called All of Us or None, aims to have the question, “Have you been convicted by a court?” banned from job applications. While a lot of jobs will still require a background check prior to hiring a new employee, removing this question from job applications gives formerly incarcerated applicants an opportunity to show employers the wealth of talent they have to offer, without the stigma of criminal conviction front and center on their applications. It’s still important to be honest about your convictions and time served, but this initiative can give you a leg up from the start of the application process.
36 U.S. states and 150 cities and municipalities have banned the box. GoodHire has the full list of states who have banned the box.
Several major companies and retailers have chosen to ban the box on their applications, regardless of location. This shows that these employers may also be more apt to hire people with prior convictions.
These are just a few companies that have opted to ban the box on their applications. Try searching terms like “Starbucks jobs” + your city and/or state to learn how to apply for jobs at these companies:
- The Coca-Cola Company
- American Airlines
- The Hershey Company
- The Johns Hopkins Hospital and Health System
- Jails-to-Jobs: This guide includes more information on how to get a job when you get out of prison, as well as how to talk about your conviction with potential employers.
- National Reentry Resource Center: NRRC has compiled a list of organizations and service providers who can address different reentry needs, including housing, employment, and family reunification.
- Center for Employment Opportunities: Also mentioned in the article above, this organization helps people get a job when they get out of prison.
- The Lionheart Foundation: This organization primarily offers social emotional learning programs to incarcerated adults, youth at risk and teen parents, but the hyperlinked page also includes a state-by-state listing of re-entry programs.
The resources above only represent a small portion of the resources available to you when you are trying to get a job when you get out of prison. Organizations based in your specific state, city, or town are also there to help.