The United States has the largest incarcerated population in the world, with roughly 2.2 million people in prison. 95% of people who are incarcerated will eventually be released from prison, but the unemployment rate among people who have been incarcerated is just over 27%. Over 600,000 people transition from prisons to the community each year and face many structural barriers to securing employment.
Employment and a stable income are necessary to provide access to supporting one’s family, pursuing life goals, and strengthening the community. There is a strong desire by people undertaking re-entry from incarceration to achieve gainful employment, but they are often excluded from access to jobs due to public policy and employer practices. People with a period of incarceration on record are 50% less likely to receive a call-back after applying for a job, and when they do receive employment, they are typically employed in insecure and low-paying positions that keep them below the poverty line.
The skilled labor shortage and skilled trade demand have remained unfilled over time, with many high-paying trade jobs sitting empty while high school students pursue higher education through cultural influence. The evolving state of occupational licensing shows promise for addressing unnecessary employment barriers that affect specific populations — such as for individuals with criminal records — and opens up opportunities to access high-paying skilled labor careers for those that have been formerly incarcerated. This guide will provide insight and resources for those who have been formerly incarcerated and are looking to enter the labor force as skilled tradespeople.
Workforce Re-Entry Challenges After Incarceration
When transitioning from incarceration back into communities, there are distinct challenges and social inequalities that those who are re-entering may face. Out of the over 600,000 individuals released from incarceration annually, nearly 75% are re-arrested within 5 years.
Recidivism is a term used to describe the re-arrest, reconviction, or return to prison from a criminal act within three years following the release of a person who has been incarcerated into society. Individuals who are released are often subject to:
- Minimal preparation and inadequate resources for re-entry to communities.
- Limited employment opportunities.
- Limited social support services.
- Limited access to public assistance.
- Socioeconomic inequalities that lead to poverty.
- Limited secure housing opportunities and the potential for homelessness.
- Disadvantages from lack of education, economics, and erosion of social structures.
- Lack of training or skills to obtain gainful employment.
- Limited or no access to healthcare or mental health services.
Studies on racial inequality in employment and earnings after re-incarceration show that minority groups face a larger disadvantage when seeking employment after incarceration due to social stigmas and eroded social structures. Additionally, women who were formerly incarcerated also face unique barriers to employment, though women are an untapped labor pool and may be considered the future of the construction industry.
Best Post-Incarceration Skilled Trades and Vocational Career Choices
Many skilled trades offer great employment opportunities. The Bureau of Labor Statistics notes that careers in the construction industry overall have a faster-than-average employment growth rate, with a median annual wage of $45,820 as of 2021. Though some construction jobs may require higher education, some may be entered with a highschool diploma or less, and may include on-the-job training. Consider the following career choices:
- Construction laborer: Construction laborers typically do not require higher education, and often receive short-term, on-the-job training. There are typically no or low barriers to entry for construction laborers in regards to a history of sentencing and conviction. The job outlook for construction laborers is growing faster than average at 5%, and the median annual pay in 2019 was $36,000 per year and roughly $17.31 per hour. The work construction laborers complete is typically physically demanding and often includes working outdoors.
- Plumber: Plumbers typically must have a high school diploma, or equivalent, and must usually complete an apprenticeship or vocational training alongside their on-the-job training. Each state has unique plumbing licensing requirements. The job outlook for plumbers is growing at an average rate of 5%, and the annual median pay in 2019 was $55,160 per year and $26.52 per hour. Plumbers may work in factories, businesses, or homes, and may be on-call through the night and weekends.
- Electrician: Becoming an electrician typically requires a high school diploma or equivalent, as well as an apprenticeship or vocational schooling alongside on-the-job training. Some states may require specific electricians licensing. The job outlook for electricians is growing much faster than average at 8%, and the annual median income for electricians in 2019 was $56,180 per year at $27.01 per hour. Electricians typically work full time, sometimes overtime, and may work in a variety of physical conditions.
- Carpenter: Carpenters typically require a high school diploma or equivalent, and typically do not require previous experience to gain entry into the field. Aspiring carpenters will likely learn through an apprenticeship and on-the-job training. The projected growth of the carpentry industry is neither positive nor negative, and the annual median pay for a carpenter in 2019 was $48,330 per year and $23.24 per hour. Carpenters work on many types of construction projects, both indoors and outdoors.
- HVAC: Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics typically require a postsecondary non-degree education including a vocational school and/or apprenticeship alongside long-term, on-the-job training. Some states and localities may have differing requirements for licensure. The job outlook for HVAC workers is growing at the national average of 4%, typically earning a median pay in 2019, of $48,730 per year and $23.43 per hour. HVAC technicians, mechanics, and installers work in a variety of environments both residential as well as commercial, and may be subject to working irregular hours to meet the needs of the job.
- Welding and metal workers: Welding and metal workers such as cutters, solderers, and brazers, typically require a high school diploma or equivalent combined with technical education and on-the-job training. The job outlook for welders and metal workers is growing at a national average of 3%. In 2019, the median pay for welders and metal workers was $42,490 per year and $20.43 per hour. The work environment for welders and metal workers may be indoor or outdoor, working on high scaffolding, or in confined areas. Full-time and overtime work is often available.
- General Contractor: General contractor education requirements depend on the specialty and the type of work they do. In general, you may not need to meet specific education requirements, unless determined by state requirements for licensure as a general contractor. The job outlook for general contractors is projected to grow at 11% by 2026, with an average annual salary of $62,097 per year, though salaries for general contractors typically increase or decrease by years of experience and education. General contractors may work in a variety of environments, from managing a construction project at a residence to working for a large construction firm and managing a large-scale project.
- Handyman and Maintenance: General maintenance and repair workers typically require a high school diploma or equivalent and receive most of their training on-the-job while working with a more experienced maintenance worker or handyperson. However, many states have special handyman license requirements. The outlook for maintenance and repair workers is growing at the national average of 4%. The annual median income for general maintenance and repair workers was $39,080 per year and $18.79 per hour. General maintenance and handyperson workers may work in diverse environments and carry out many types of tasks and services.
Education and Vocational Programs Available During Incarceration
Case studies of vocational training in prison show that receiving training from a vocational program not only helps the individual find employment, but also reduces the likelihood of recidivism. A meta-analysis of research on corrections-based vocational training programs found that participants in vocational programs had a 28% higher success rate than those who did not participate in training.
In addition to lowered recidivism and increased employment, the right to education and education programs for people who are incarcerated also pose personal, social, and economic good for those who will be released and reintegrated into society.
Skilled trade and vocational education programs for people who are incarcerated may include:
- The U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons offers an occupational training directory that lists the types of classes that are available on-site per institution. The courses range by industry and include many opportunities for earning credits towards skilled trades certifications. The length of duration of classwork varies by the certifications, and most certifications require a high school diploma or GED, as well as 6 months of clear conduct.
- Adams State University offers a prison college program through correspondence. Tuition for correspondence courses is $220 per semester with a variety of academic courses.
- Appliance University offers vocational training programs specifically for people who are currently incarcerated. Their classes include soft textbooks, video tutorials, and comprehensive training programs to teach students about service, operation, and repair procedures for different appliances and HVACR systems, as well as professional development for customer service.
- Upper Iowa University provides a self-paced written correspondence education program. Each course is six months long, and they offer a list of correspondence programs.
- Colorado State University at Pueblo offers a variety of accredited extended study classes, both online and as correspondence independent study. Correspondence courses typically provide 15 weeks to 12 months for completion.
- Ohio University provides education courses through correspondence. There are a few different academic degree options, with tiers of tuition and fees that are subject to change.
- California Coast University offers self-paced online accredited courses in a variety of fields with affordable rates and payment plans for tuition.
- American Graduate University offers classes that are accredited by the Distance Education Accrediting Commission. Their courses are offered online and there are diverse options for degrees and certifications.
Post-Incarceration Vocational, Apprenticeship, and Educational Programs
Alongside the stigma that people who have been incarcerated may face when they re-enter society, there are also barriers to employment due to policies and certification requirements, as well as a lack of training and job skills. Many skilled trade jobs offer some form of on-the-job training in addition to technical or vocational education as well as an apprenticeship. This list compiles a few examples of vocational, apprenticeship, and educational programs that are available to people who have previously been incarcerated.
- The U.S. Department of Labor hosts Apprenticeship.Gov, a resource that helps individuals find opportunities for apprenticeships in their respective states. You can use the Apprenticeship Finder Tool by entering in the occupation or keywords for the occupation that you seek, as well as your city or state location.
- Career Exploration hosts a list of apprenticeship programs listed by state.
- The Flintridge Center offers apprenticeship preparation programs for previously incarcerated individuals to gain information, experience, and skills in the construction industry. The Flintridge Center serves the various communities of Los Angeles County.
- Jails to Jobs offers apprenticeships and training programs specifically for individuals who have been incarcerated. You can search for specific programs by industry and location using their Database of Apprenticeship programs and indicating the county you reside in, as well as the occupation you are interested in.
- Northern California Construction Training offers education for skills such as framing, bricklaying, furniture design and carpentry, site planning, and interior finish work. Enrollment is open year-round, and after program completion, graduates will receive assistance in getting apprenticeships and union positions.
- Oregon Tradeswomen offers pr-apprenticeship training programs, including Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class, an 8-week pre-apprenticeship training that prepares individuals for a career in the skilled trades. The “Pathways to Success” program is focused on supporting women who are interested in skilled trades careers.
- CareerOneStop Provides specified search boards for types of training such as High School Equivalency, basic training skills, short-term certificates, apprenticeships, college coursework, certifications, and licenses. To find the appropriate resources, select your state in the drop-down box to find resources near you.
- The Maryland Apprenticeship Locator helps job seekers look for apprenticeship opportunities that are currently and actively hiring in Maryland. You can narrow it down by parameters like the county you live in or wish to work in, what type of apprenticeship you’re seeking, and your industry of choice.
- Top-Notch Indiana Union Construction provides a list of links to local unions in the Indiana area for a variety of industries.
Mentorship is not only important in the construction industry, but has also been proven to increase the likelihood of getting a job twofold. Those who received mentorship were more likely to keep their job for over three months and were 35% less likely to re-offend in the year following their release.
Programs that provide mentorship to people who were previously incarcerated may be hosted by government, state, independent, and nonprofit organizations:
- From Prison Cells to PhD is an organization with a mission to help inspire and change the lives of men and women who are currently or were formerly incarcerated. The programs they provide include educational and career counseling, advocacy, and mentoring.
- CareerOneStop offers resources listed by state for career mentorship and aid.
- Community Works offers career advice, coaching, and life monitorship. The program also assists in job placement and provides skill assistance, financial management assistance, and mentorship for communication skills.
- The National Re-Entry Resource Center fosters mentorship and peer mentorship programs and services for those who are re-entering the community after incarceration.
- RISE offers a re-entry mentorship program to provide relational support to men and women re-entering the community. The program typically includes six-months of weekly mentorship for those that have completed the RISE program.
- Father Matters Re-Entry Mentoring Project is a program for both men and women of at least 18 years of age who are pre-or-post release status that provides mentorship, transition planning, classes, counseling services, and additional courses. The mentorship program is completely free for mentees.
- Help For Felons offers a list of state-by-state mentorship and assistance programs to help those who are entering find mentorship and community-based services near them.
- Workforce Innovations for Natives at American Indian OIC/Takoda Works is a Native American specific program that provides career and personal employment planning, mentorship, job development, training, and placement assistance.
Starting a Handyman Business After Incarceration
For individuals who have received training or have prior knowledge of construction, maintenance, and general handyperson knowledge, starting your own business as a handyman can be a great option. To become a professional handyman, you will need the required training and education, and may need experience working as an apprentice or assistant. A handyman business may be a good option for those living in a state that has strict licensure laws for those with a criminal record, though some licensing may still be required.
To become a handyman you will need to know how to:
- Change light switches.
- Stop running toilets.
- Paint walls or exteriors.
- Replace windows.
- Lubricate furnaces and/or clean air ducts.
- Install locks and change doorknobs.
- Unclog pipes.
- Install drywall.
- Install light fixtures.
You will also need business skills and to know how to operate as an entrepreneur. This may include:
- Creating estimates.
- Marketing your services and finding leads for job opportunities.
- Creating and managing invoices and estimates.
- Social skills to make connections with employers, contractors, customers, and suppliers.
Re-Entry Employment Resources
Re-entering the workforce after experiencing incarceration can be a challenge. Understanding your rights under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act can help you to understand:
- The information you are and are not required to include in your job search.
- How your records may be legally obtained.
- How to protect yourself against inaccuracies in your record.
- How to protect yourself from records that are out of date or should have been sealed or expunged.
The following sections will provide additional resources for finding jobs, as well as grants and financial assistance for those re-entering the community and labor force.
There are a variety of resources that provide essential information, job boards, career assistance, career centers to assist in finding a career, or other organizations that provide employment support for re-entry. The following resources are dedicated to assisting in the job search after incarceration.
- The University of Southern California Career Center offers assistance and programs for re-entering the community, ensuring that you have the right to work, and a career center for employment opportunities and services that are exclusive to individuals who have recently re-entered the community and labor force.
- 2ndChance4Felons is an organization that assists people with felony convictions to find gainful employment. The organization compiles lists of staffing agencies and companies that hire people with felonies.
- Jails to Jobs is a nonprofit organization that prepares people who have been incarcerated with new job hunting plans, on-the-job training positions, and networking for job leads. They also provide employer incentives to help get you hired, free interview clothes, and tattoo removal.
- The Center for Employment Opportunities (CEO) is an organization focused exclusively on providing training and connections to a job or career for people who have recently been incarcerated and may still be on probation or parole. CEO also works directly as a staffing solution that provides businesses with qualified candidates who have completed their education programs.
- The Center for Workforce Inclusion offers career training and job placement services for job seekers who have been formerly incarcerated.
- JobsforFelonshub.com is a website that is dedicated to assisting people who have felony convictions obtain employment. They provide information for services, jobs, housing, voting rights, legal representation, expungement services, and lists of companies that hire people with a felony/s.
- Help for Felons is a website that is dedicated to assisting people with felonies find the right job, with companies that hire people who have been incarcerated. This may include different types of jobs such as online jobs, truck driving, temporary work, self-employment, and entrepreneurship, etc. The website offers a variety of information, advice, and tips for the job-hunting process.
- The Women’s Prison Association (WPA) offers a variety of programs tailored for each individual and where they are on their own path. The WPA provides employment and job training, connection to paid internships, and job matching with their skills.
Grants and Financial Assistance
There are financial and educational resources for individuals who have been incarcerated that can be utilized for education, employment and finding a stable income, and seeking housing. These resources may include nonprofit, community programs, organizational programs, scholarships, government programs, and small business grants.
- Moneygeek offers a finance guide for formerly incarcerated people that addresses re-entry challenges as well as the specific financial challenges that those who have been incarcerated may face. After addressing challenges and solutions, the guide offers a list of re-entry resources by state.
- The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers financial information and tools for people transitioning from incarceration. These free tools include booklets, financial tools, and informational guides.
- The Online Course Report offers a guide to scholarships for people who are currently or formerly incarcerated. The guide outlines detailed opportunities for financial aid for education, as well as advice, tips, and essential information to know in the process of applying for financial aid.
- Federal financial assistance programs may include Social Security Benefits, Supplemental Social Security Income, Social Security Disability Income, and medicare health-care benefits.
- A state-run Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or similar programs assist low-income people to purchase nutritious food. To meet the requirements of SNAP you may need to meet low-income level requirements.
- The Small Business Administration offers a microloan program that can provide a loan of up to $50,000 for certain small businesses and startups. The applicant will need to meet the eligibility requirements, and the loan may be used as working capital, inventory or supplies, furniture or fixtures, as well as necessary machinery or equipment to get the small business started.
- MicroGrants offers grants typically around $1,000 for low-income applicants to start a small business or retain employment. The grants may be used for education, small businesses, and transportation costs.
- Walmart offers grants that range from $250 to $5,000. Selections are on an on-going basis so there is no application deadline.
- ModestNeeds.Org offers small self-sufficiency grants that assist those that are working and living just above the poverty level. These grants are available to those that live and work in the financial space where they are not considered at the poverty level and do not meet the requirements for most financial assistance, and yet do not make enough to cover their living expenses.
Additional Support and Resources
There are additional resources for those who have been incarcerated that include:
- Crisis Connections offers a variety of resources and emergency services brochures for emergency shelters, emergency services, medical services, re-entry assistance, housing, and food resources for the Seattle area.
- The Alternatives to Violence Project provides training programs and workshops to support individuals dealing with potentially violent situations or behaviors in new and creative ways.
- The Lionheart Foundation offers a state-by-state listing of re-entry programs for people who have been incarcerated.
- The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) offers a detailed brochure that discusses various programs and resources for individuals that have previously been incarcerated, and explains how and where to access them.
- Catholic Charities USA assists individuals and families that are facing homelessness or are in danger of becoming homeless from systemic issues such as racism and poverty. Applicants do not need to be Catholic to apply for assistance.
- 2-1-1 Calling 211 connects individuals with assistance resources that may include help with paying bills, finding food, receiving mental health, or assistance with substance abuse.
- The Fair Shake Re-Entry Resource Center provides a list of national, state, and local re-entry guides, organizations, and programs.
Image Source: https://depositphotos.com/