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Overcoming Barriers: Essential Soft Skills for Felons Entering the Workforce

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Seeking employment after being released from prison presents significant obstacles, and navigating this complex landscape is one of the greatest challenges that ex-offenders confront. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that roughly two-thirds of released prisoners face re-arrest within three years, with unemployment serving as a significant contributing factor to this high rate of recidivism.

The reluctance of employers to hire individuals with criminal records, combined with the ex-offenders often lacking the required education, skills, or experience for today’s competitive job market, results in many falling into unstable, low-wage, or illegal employment or remaining unemployed and reliant on public assistance.

Despite this seemingly daunting scenario, it’s not a foregone conclusion. Numerous examples exist of ex-offenders who have successfully overcome these barriers to establish fulfilling careers in various fields. Consider the story of Catherine Hoke, convicted of fraud and embezzlement, who founded Defy Ventures, a nonprofit organization that mentors and trains formerly incarcerated entrepreneurs. Or Chris Wilson, sentenced to life in prison for murder, who earned his high school diploma, college degree, and multiple certifications while incarcerated, and subsequently became a successful businessman, author, and speaker. Similarly, Coss Marte turned his prison experience of losing 70 pounds into an opportunity by establishing ConBody, a fitness company employing ex-offenders as trainers.

These uplifting stories underscore that with the right skills and mindset, ex-offenders can reach their employment goals, transcending the barriers they face to secure meaningful employment. This comprehensive guide will delve into the key skills ex-offenders need to develop and exhibit to land rewarding jobs.

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Understanding the Barriers: Discrimination, Skill Gaps, and Other Challenges

For many ex-offenders, reentry into the workforce is more than just a job search; it’s a battle against deeply ingrained biases and systemic obstacles. Some of these obstacles include:-

  1. Stigma and Discrimination: A significant number of potential employers harbor biases or stereotypes against ex-offenders, which often prevents their consideration for job roles. A study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) revealed that 82% of managers and 67% of HR professionals had concerns about hiring people with criminal records. Practices like background checks or inquiries about criminal history in applications can exclude ex-offenders from the hiring process. As per a study by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ), having a criminal record lessened the chance of receiving a callback or job offer by almost 50%.
  1. Skills and Experience Gaps: Many ex-offenders may not possess the necessary education, training, or job experience required in the modern labor market. Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) reported that only 40% of state prisoners had completed high school or acquired a GED, compared to 89% of the general population. Ex-offenders might struggle to apply the skills acquired in prison to real-world scenarios or keep pace with advancements in their fields. A report by the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) estimated that 48% of previously incarcerated individuals were either unemployed or underemployed in low-skill jobs.
  1. Legal and Logistical Obstacles: Ex-offenders face numerous legal and practical hurdles that hamper their job search and restrict their employment choices. Certain states or localities may enforce restrictions or bans on certain types of employment for people with criminal records, such as in healthcare, education, childcare, security, or public service sectors. Challenges such as obtaining necessary identification or documentation, handling transportation, housing, childcare, healthcare, or other job-related expenses can also hinder their ability to maintain a job.

These barriers often lead to a vicious cycle of unemployment and poverty for ex-offenders, which in turn escalates their risk of reoffending and returning to prison. Thus, it’s critical to confront these barriers and equip ex-offenders with the requisite skills and support to conquer them and achieve success in the workforce. The following sections will delve into the skills that ex-offenders can develop to boost their employability, along with resources and programs that can aid them in their job preparation and search.

Developing Essential Soft Skills: The Key to Successful Employment

Soft skills, sometimes referred to as people skills, interpersonal skills, or work-readiness skills, are personal attributes that influence how we interact with others. These traits, attitudes, and behaviors can be pivotal in boosting the employability of ex-offenders, aiding them in overcoming some of the barriers they encounter in their job search. Unlike hard skills, which are specific, technical, and measurable, soft skills are general and transferable, applicable across a variety of situations and contexts.

Here are some of the essential soft skills that employers look for in potential employees:

  1. Communication Skills: This encompasses expressing oneself clearly and confidently in both verbal and written forms. Also crucial is the ability to listen attentively, understand and respond to others—skills that are vital for building rapport, sharing information, giving feedback, resolving conflicts, and persuading others.
  1. Teamwork Skills: These skills enable effective collaboration with others towards common goals. They include cooperation, coordination, compromise, and respect, essential traits for completing tasks efficiently, sharing ideas, learning from others, and creating a positive work environment.
  1. Problem-solving Skills: These skills involve the ability to identify, analyze, and resolve issues or challenges that arise in work situations. Creativity, critical thinking, decision-making, and adaptability fall under this category and are important for finding solutions, overcoming obstacles, improving processes, and achieving results.
  1. Work Ethic: This refers to attitudes and behaviors demonstrating commitment, dedication, and professionalism in work situations. It involves punctuality, reliability, responsibility, honesty, integrity, and initiative, which are all vital for meeting expectations, delivering quality work, earning trust, and advancing one’s career.

Developing these soft skills can have a transformative effect on ex-offenders employment prospects:

  • Communication skills can help ex-offenders present themselves positively in their resumes, cover letters, interviews, and networking opportunities. They can also assist in respectfully and honestly disclosing their criminal history when necessary.

  • Teamwork skills can demonstrate to employers that ex-offenders can work well with diverse coworkers and customers and help ex-offenders build supportive relationships in their workplace and community.

  • Problem-solving skills can illustrate their ability to handle challenges and changes in their work environment, as well as help them cope with the stresses and setbacks in their reentry process.

  • Work ethic can help allay doubts or concerns employers may have about hiring ex-offenders and maintain their motivation and performance in their jobs.


In conclusion, transitioning back into the workforce for ex-offenders is fraught with many obstacles, from systemic discrimination to significant skills gaps. However, success stories and a growing understanding of these barriers underline the potential for meaningful change. Through developing essential soft skills such as communication, teamwork, problem-solving, and a strong work ethic, ex-offenders can transform their employability, presenting a more competitive front to potential employers.

Also, these skills don’t just aid in securing a job; they also foster a supportive and progressive work environment, enable problem-solving, and help build trust. Thus, soft skills offer a crucial pathway for ex-offenders to transcend their past, seize control of their future, and successfully reintegrate into society, thereby reducing recidivism rates and contributing positively to their communities.

So what do you think about this blog post Overcoming Barriers: Essential Soft Skills for Felons Entering the Workforce? Have you or someone you know been in that situation? What was that like and what happened? Please tell us in the comments below.

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