October 19, 2007
Focus on skills and training, not troubled past on résumé
The Wall Street Journal
Joanne Jester has an impressive résumé. It describes her many duties as office manager for cdm eCycling, a small Baltimore company. She also lists prior employers, including State Use Industries, from 2000 to 2003.
But there's a catch: State Use Industries was the prison-industry arm of Maryland's correctional system. Jester worked as a telemarketing office assistant there while serving a four-year sentence for theft and related charges. Her résumé reveals nothing about her imprisonment.
Jester took the right approach, according to several career coaches and legal specialists. Facing huge barriers to re-employment, former prisoners should craft résumés focused on their marketable skills, training, work and life experiences, not their troubled pasts.
"You never address the fact that you were incarcerated in your résumé," says Wendy Enelow, an author and career consultant in Coleman Falls, Va. "You're giving them a reason to exclude you."
She believes this strategy could apply to anyone with gaps in employment, from cancer patients to recovering alcoholics and individuals fired for cause.
"It's not just ex-offenders who have challenges returning to work. It's a problem for lots of people," says Enelow, co-author with Louise Kursmark of "Expert Résumés for People Returning to Work."
Their book offers discreet ways to account for work performed behind bars. One sample résumé calls the gigs "temporary assignments," although they lasted eight years. Another identifies the prison employer as "State of California."
Federal and state institutions released nearly 700,000 inmates in 2005, about 15 percent more than in 2000, the Justice Department reported.
Hoping to curb recidivism, certain states such as Maryland prepare prisoners to rejoin the work force long before their release.
Jester, for instance, took office-skills courses throughout her incarceration. She revised her résumé with help from Tricia Hopkins, a transition coordinator who counsels on job hunting. The revamped document identified "Maryland State Department of Education" as the training provider. It also stated that she "graduated with recommendations" from her final course.
Jester says she informed potential employers that she broke the law to survive marriage to an abusive heroin addict.
You must "sell yourself and be proud of what you've become," she said. "You have to learn to admit your mistakes."
She joined cdm as a data-entry clerk in December 2004, after Hopkins persuaded the computer-recycling company to hire an ex-con for the first time.
Other former offenders avoid discussing their crimes with hiring managers, thanks to carefully worded résumés and employers' limited probes of applicants' personal records.
Consider a 30-year-old computer technician whom Comcast hired soon after he completed a 13-year sentence for reckless endangerment and handgun use last spring. The charges arose from his fight with another youth in which a stray bullet seriously hurt a bystander.
The eighth-grade dropout completed community college and earned certification in several building trades during his prison stay.
He prepared a "functional" résumé, which emphasizes qualifications and competencies but plays down a job seeker's work history.
In such résumés, a section typically labeled "Areas of Accomplishment" can cite transferable talents, such as the ability to communicate well and meet deadlines.
His functional résumé highlights his educational achievements. The top portion states that he graduated magna cum laude from his community college. Next is his long catalog of skills, including certifications, problem-solving ability and a "strong hands-on approach to get the job done."
But he doesn't mention he attended college from prison and omits dates for his limited work experience there.
During his Comcast interview, the technician says he vaguely alluded to "something in my past."
A recruiter for the nation's largest cable-TV provider replied that he had nothing to worry about if the misdeed occurred more than seven years ago.
"We conduct background checks as far back as state law permits – up to a maximum of 10 years," a Comcast spokeswoman said.
If the check uncovers a conviction, she said, officials weigh the nature of the crime, evidence of rehabilitation and other factors.
About 25 percent of employers in some industries refrain from asking would-be staffers about convictions more than seven years ago, says Kevin Lindsey, an employment lawyer at Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson in Minneapolis.
The growing trend reflects "enlightened self interest in expanding the applicant pool rather than fear of violating a specific state law," he said.
What about criminals without meaningful jobs behind bars? They could minimize attention to their work-force absence by describing the duration of prior positions, career consultants suggest. For instance, a résumé might read: "Gap store manager (10 years)," followed by a detailed description of the duties involved.
"Are we fooling anybody? No," Enelow said. "Résumés don't get you jobs. They just open doors."
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