During the five years Antonio Crockett spent in a federal prison for felonious drug and gun possession, he never imagined that one day he would become a mentor.
“I was praying I would make it out alive,” says Crockett, 35, who was released in 2014.
Crockett worked low-level construction jobs for three years until his cousin encouraged him to check out Second Chance Tiny Homes.
The free, three-month program teaches participants construction techniques through on-the-job training in the mornings and classes in the afternoons.
After graduating from the inaugural class earlier this year, Crockett joined the program’s staff and now earns around $15 an hour mentoring other students.
Crockett says he’s also starting courses in January at St. Petersburg College in Florida to obtain his general contractor license — his goal is to employ other graduates of the program some day.
Crockett credits his packed schedule — he’s also working three to four side construction gigs at any given time — with keeping him out of trouble and helping him demonstrate to program participants that his success is an ongoing process.
“I’m showing them a good role model, showing them this is what it’s about — you work hard, it pays off,” says Crockett. “I have to show that I can’t stop here.”
Employment After Prison
Crockett isn’t alone in initially thinking that he didn’t have much to look forward to after prison.
In the United States, more than 620,000 people are released from prison annually, but only 55 percent of former prisoners report having any earnings in the first year, according to a Brookings Institute report. Among those with jobs, the median annual earnings is $10,090.
This lack of opportunity and low wages often leaves the previously incarcerated with few options, which could also help explain why more than half of prisoners are arrested within one year of release, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
But in a hot labor market, there’s hope that more companies will widen their applicant pool — and offer higher wages — to those with criminal records.
In fact, 33 states and more than 150 cities and counties have adopted a “ban the box” initiative, which aims to eliminate the question (or box) on job applications that requires applicants to reveal if they have conviction or arrest records.
We talked to career coaches and re-entry experts to find job resources for the previously incarcerated to help make the transition back to society a smoother one.
Where to Find Your First Job After Incarceration
The first job out of prison is an important step for re-entry, but it doesn’t need to be the last.
Managing expectations about the types of employment — and pay — is essential, according to Ashley Hampton, a psychologist and business coach who has worked in the federal prison system.
“Your first job will not be the job you want forever,” Hampton says. “Your first job is the stepping stone to get your second, and your second is the stepping stone to get your third.”
Fast food and construction jobs are usually easier to get with a criminal record, as are positions at local companies owned by ex-offenders, according to Hampton.
Additionally, check out industries in your area that are struggling to attract workers, recommends Rich Alvarez, director of career pathways for Pinellas County Ex-Offender Re-Entry Coalition.
“Right now the economy is a good thing for ex-offenders, especially in manual labor type of jobs because they’re dying for help,” Alvarez says. “Wherever these low-hanging fruits are, where there are labor gaps like that, it’s where you really want to try to focus.”
Success at that first job requires ex-offenders to change the defensive attitude most prisoners develop, Crockett points out.
“You can’t be scared to ask for help,” says Crockett, noting that the Tiny Homes program has provided him a job as well as a support network that offers positive reinforcement. “It’s who you put yourself around to make your changes in life.”
Careers for People With a Criminal Record
Even if you take a less-than-ideal first job, it’s not too early to start thinking about your future, according to Larry Bryant, workforce empowerment specialist with Pinellas County’s Success Training And Retention Services (STARS).
“We encourage them to start thinking in terms of a career versus just a job… We encourage having a bridge job,” Bryant says. “But that’s what it should be, just a bridge job, because ultimately, you should be doing what you’re passionate about.”
Even if you’re interested in a career that may seem out of reach, don’t give up, Alvarez advises.
“If you just had a drug offense, your chances of becoming a nurse right away are pretty small,” he says. “But over time… you can apply to have an exemption.
“Nothing is impossible — it’s just a matter of how long you’re willing to work and how long you’re willing to wait.”
Job Hunting Advice When You Have a Criminal Record
Before you start hitting the streets to apply for a job, consider your skill set, Alvarez advises.
“You have to take a serious inventory of what your skills are — when’s the last time you created a resume, or do you interview well?” Alvarez says. “If not, you need to take some classes.”
As part of the Tiny Homes program, Crockett also attended STARS classes, which teach employment readiness through resume-writing workshops, mock interviews and skill assessments.
“I learned how to communicate with people,” Crockett says. “A lot of mind frames changed from the beginning to the end.”
Learning that new way of thinking is an important part of re-entry, since prisoners’ soft skills — like dealing with a boss or resolving a customer’s problem — have little opportunity to develop during incarceration, according to Hampton.
“When somebody tells you to do something for so long, you lose a lot of that ability to make decisions yourself,” she says. “And you have to re-learn that.”
However, there are actually positive experiences of incarceration that could make an applicant marketable, Alvarez suggests.
“Use the jobs you did in prison on your resume, because those count,” Alvarez says. “If you did landscaping in prison, that translates to the civilian world.”
And if you completed any training in prison — including GED completion, college courses or technical training — be sure to add all of it to your application or resume.
“With a [criminal] background, stack as many credentials as you can behind your name,” says Alvarez, adding that additional education and training can overcome the stigma associated with time in prison.
If a potential employer asks about a criminal past during the interview, Alvarez advises applicants to be honest, but succinct.
“Briefly explain the charges, and then move on to the explanation of how you’ve changed since then and what you’ve done to separate yourself from that,” Alvarez says. “Don’t retry your case.”
And if an employer is still wary, Hampton recommends applicants apply for bonding through the Federal Bonding Program. The free government-sponsored program offers insurance to businesses that hire people who’ve been incarcerated.
Don’t Give Up on a Job — or Yourself
When ex-offenders snag that first job, three ways to make a good impression are showing up on time, wearing professional attire and staying off the cell phone during work hours, Alvarez notes.
“Start developing a consistent work schedule,” Alvarez says. “And don’t quit until you have another job lined up.”
Crockett’s advice to others trying to follow his lead? Keep hustling.
“Stay positive, stay motivated,” he says. “Keep moving, staying busy.”
His advice to loved ones who want to help? Keep trying.
“That one time, you might say it… that might be the push to motivate them,” Crockett says. “A lot of people go through a lot of things, so you never want to give up on nobody.”
Crockett uses himself as proof that the persistence pays off.
“I never thought I’d ever be in the construction field,” he says. “Now, I love what I’m doing.”
Tiffany Wendeln Connors is a staff writer at Codetic. She covers benefits, invisible jobs and work-from-home opportunities. Read her bio here or catch her on Twitter @TiffanyWendeln.