Top 5 Challenges in Ex-Offender Workforce Development

Social Solutions Blog

Top 5 Challenges in Ex-Offender Workforce Development

Ex-offenders often find the challenge of obtaining gainful employment to be insurmountable. The average hiring manager has little, if any, interest in adding an ex-offender to their workforce. The stereotype of ex-offenders being untrustworthy, immoral and dangerous has pervaded nearly every industry. For some ex-offenders, it seems as though a miracle is necessary to reenter the workforce in any capacity. But what are some of the primary challenges of ex-offender workforce development?

1. Establishing a Rapport

The typical human resources administrator might be intrigued by an ex-offender’s skill set and willingness to work for a low wage. However, as soon as a hiring manager finds out that an applicant is an ex-offender, the resume or application usually gets dismissed. The primary obstacle standing in the way of ex-offenders is building a rapport with those who make hiring decisions. As soon as one admits that they are an ex-offender, the majority of hiring managers will deem them untrustworthy and no longer consider them for the open position.

A survey conducted by the Urban Institute’s Justice Policy Center uncovered some alarming results pertaining to ex-offender employment rates. Of over 700 former prisoners in Texas, Ohio, and Illinois, only 65 percent of ex-offenders had obtained employment at one point in time (including part-time and temporary work) eight months after reentering society. Furthermore, only 45 percent of these individuals held a job at the time of the survey. Ex-offenders in search of employment can only do so much to persuade hiring managers that they are fully rehabilitated and trustworthy. This challenge must be addressed on a society-wide level for any real change to occur.

2. A Lack of Specialized Training

Ex-offenders usually don’t have the type of cutting-edge skills employers are looking for. Many lack a college education, work experience, and technical skills that can only be learned on the job or in a classroom. The lack of specialized training combined with the status of being an ex-offender can be difficult for the average job-seeker to overcome. Few employers are willing to train uneducated and unskilled employees from the ground up. Even fewer are willing to invest such time and effort in an individual who was formerly incarcerated.

As noted in this study performed by the Legal Action Center, only five states have passed laws or policies to boost occupational licensing opportunities for ex-offenders. The vast majority of states permit employers, as well as occupational licensing agencies, to withhold job and license offers to those who have been arrested. There doesn’t even have to be a conviction for such discrimination to take place, all it takes is an arrest.

It is imperative that ex-offenders do everything in their power to improve their skill set. Whether it is obtaining a certificate, completing trade school training, or graduating with a highly coveted STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) college degree, ex-offenders who invest in themselves will find it much easier to convince hiring managers to extend an offer of employment.

3. Geographic Location

In some instances, an ex-offender’s geographic location plays a major role in determining whether they find and retain employment. The legal and practical barriers to relocation mean that it is rarely possible for the average ex-offender to move to an area where a surplus of job opportunities are available. As the Urban Institute explains, “…difficulties are reinforced by parole restrictions that often require these men to live in the same communities from which they came, and by laws that prohibit ex-offenders in some states from obtaining driver’s licenses.” Those who live in rural areas with little industry and high unemployment face a daunting challenge. Even those who live in suburban locations and lack a vehicle or access to a bus route will find it difficult to travel to job interviews and work sites upon being hired.

Alternatively, those who reside in a booming urban space with a surplus of employers and mass transit options will likely find the job search process to be less of a challenge. Unfortunately, it is rare for the average ex-offender to relocate to an area where a surplus of job opportunities are available. Ex-offenders tend to lack the money and means of transportation necessary to relocate to centers of economic activity in a timely manner.

4. Employment Retention

Though some ex-offenders find jobs, retention is still an issue. As noted in the Urban Institute’s “Employment After Prison” study, only 43 percent of ex-offenders found employment two months after exiting prison, with only 31 percent being employed at the time this survey was conducted. The employment rate of the study’s participants decreased by 12 percent, proving that retention can be an even bigger challenge than finding employment. Many ex-offenders are grateful for the opportunity to work for an employer in any capacity.

Employers also play an important role in the challenge of retention. Those that hire ex-offenders typically hold them to a higher standard than other “traditional” employees. There is little room for error when it comes to an ex-offender’s job performance. Though it is unfair, plenty of employers will not hesitate to downsize or cut the hours of an ex-offender for even the most minor transgressions.

5. Proving Self-worth

Though the average person views ex-offenders as risky hires, the truth is that most ex-offenders are ready and willing to work hard. Some have even obtained advanced technical skills or knowledge of trades. In such instances, the challenge is finding an opportunity to prove one’s worth. According to the National Employment Law Project (NELP), 70 million people in America have criminal records. The vast majority of states have not passed “ban the box” laws that prevent employers from inquiring about a candidate’s criminal history. According to the Pew Charitable Trusts, astonishingly enough 37 states have failed to adopt such a statute. A mere six states bar private employers from asking about a candidate’s criminal history on their employment application.

All in all, almost one in every three adults in the United States has the task of explaining a criminal record to prospective employers. Ex-offenders are capable of adding much more value to an employer than the employer may even realize. Employers need to be willing to give ex-offenders a chance, and let them explain that their past does not define who they are today.


Although there are many obstacles to employment for recently released prisoners, Social Solutions is proud to support reentry organizations in their mission to help ex-offenders find gainful employment and reintegrate into society. Social Solutions’ ETO and Apricot software help organizations track a client’s progress through programs so case managers can see what roadblocks to employment their clients are facing and help them navigate through them. ETO and Apricot save frontline staff time, make reporting easy, and surface important insights, all of which allow organizations to have more impact on their clients. Take our interactive quiz to see which Social Solutions product can help your ex-offender workforce development program achieve more mission.

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