Hard work helps overcome the past

Dear Joan:
Being a person who is incarcerated and soon to be released, I feel that finding employment may be a bit difficult because of this.

I am hoping that you could give me some advice on how to get employers interested in me and not in what I have done (which is not serious). I have various general labor skills, painting experience, etc. I also have two years of college and do plan to continue my education.

I would much appreciate a reply from you. Thank you for your time and your help.

First, you'll need to convince employers you are a good risk. Second, you will need to establish an excellent work record at the first job you get.

For you, a good attitude will be everything. If you are enthusiastic, willing to take a less than ideal job to start and to work harder than any of your co-workers, you will be in a good position to succeed.

While you're finishing your degree, use the opportunity to get to know your professors. You will need a reference soon and a professor who is familiar with your work and attitude will be a good choice. As soon as you enroll, sign up for an internship because it will get you in the door of a company so you can show what you can do. Internships allow companies and students to test each other to see if a permanent job is a good idea. If you get an internship, work your tail off.

You would also be wise to try to find a job at the university. Even if the job pays low wages, you need to build a solid work record. Your goal is this: you need your job reference to be so positive about you and your work that they calm any employer's fears and convince the potential employer to give you a chance.

Your appearance will be more important for you than for other job candidates. You must be extremely clean, well dressed and well groomed. Your letters must be perfectly typed and articulate. (The letter you sent to me looked very professional.) You must do everything you can to distance yourself from the stereotype people might expect.

It might be a good idea to apply to a temporary agency. Employers usually don't know the backgrounds of the temporaries that are sent to them. All they care about is that the "temp" is qualified and willing to work hard. This will help you build a good track record of employment. If possible, try to get to know each of your temporary employers so that they might be willing to give you a reference when you begin to look for a full-time job.

You might be interested in starting your own small business. Perhaps a painting, wallpapering, handyman type of company would be relatively cheap to start up and run. Talk to paint store and hardware storeowners about the demand for this kind of service. They might even know of an existing business like this that could use some extra help. Watch the "work wanted" section of the paper to see how much competition there is. You may even want to call a few of them to see what services they offer and how much they charge.

You may want to do some volunteer work for a community group that serves others. This will do several things for you. You will be working side-by-side with potential employers (who also volunteered). You will be building job skills and work experience. Finally, you may be able to use them as a reference and this kind of reference will help to create a good image for you.

The way you handle interviews will be very important. Write down and rehearse the explanation you will give to tough questions. The key here is that you must take responsibility for what you did but then shift quickly to how that has changed you for the better and how you are willing to work hard to prove yourself.

If you respond to a want ad, use a marketing letter instead of the traditional cover letter and resume. The marketing letter is useful for career changers, college graduates and anyone else who is likely to be screened out for some reason.

Your marketing letter should open with a short statement about your most significant accomplishment, as it relates to the job for which you're applying. In the next paragraph be straightforward about what you want. For example, "If your organization is looking for an experienced painter who is willing to give 150%, you'll be interested in some of my other accomplishments."

The next section should list three to five achievements that will cause the reader to think, "I want someone to do things like this for me." Include an action verb, a brief situation description and the result.

Next, describe your work history and educational background. Lead with your strengths and de-emphasize or omit your less competitive qualifications. The goal is to get a call for an interview. There will be an opportunity to discuss your incarceration in an interview or on the phone when you have a better chance to sell yourself.

End with a statement about being eager to meet with the person to discuss your background in more detail and to explore any opportunities the organization may have.

You may have more luck with a marketing letter after you have had a chance to build up your credentials with some of the ideas mentioned earlier.

You will be happy to know that the employment situation is on your side. The labor pool is shrinking and employers are more willing to take a chance on an employee they normally wouldn't hire. Take the opportunity and turn it into the best decision they ever made. 

Joan Lloyd is a Milwaukee based executive coach and organizational & leadership development strategist. She is known for her ability to help leaders and their teams achieve measurable, lasting improvements. Joan Lloyd & Associates, specializes in leadership development, organizational change and teambuilding, providing: executive coaching, CEO coaching & leader team coaching, 360-degree feedback processes, retreat facilitation and presentation skill coaching and small group labs. Contact Joan Lloyd & Associates at (414) 573-1616, mailto:info@joanlloyd.com, or www.JoanLloyd.com 
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