Career Advice for Job Seekers

10 tactics to get hired for an internship or entry-level job as a student or recent grad with a criminal record

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.
Steven Rothberg AvatarSteven Rothberg
April 2, 2021

I suspect that if I were to ask a bunch of people what percentage of currently enrolled students of one-, two-, and four-year colleges and universities had criminal records that they would grossly underestimate the actual number. I also suspect the same would be true if I were to ask what percentage of recent graduates had criminal records. Unfortunately, there are no accurate numbers but we can estimate.

According to The Brookings Institution, “approximately 30 percent, or nearly one in three Americans have been arrested at least once by the age of 23.  Arrests rates are particularly high among young men of color:  44 percent of Hispanic men, and 49 percent of black men have been arrested at least once by the age of 23, compared to 38 percent of white men. Not every arrest leads to a permanent criminal record. But by the ages of 28 to 33, about 20 percent of men with at least a high school diploma but less than a bachelor’s degree hold some kind of criminal conviction or guilty plea.”

Clearly, the above demographic is not the same as currently enrolled students or recent graduates but it is a good starting point given that the bulk of students and recent grads fall into the above age ranges. “A study of the State University of New York (SUNY) system,” continued Brookings, “found that nearly 3,000 applicants in a single application cycle checked a box indicating they had a prior felony conviction, before SUNY removed the question from their application this year. This corresponds to about 3 to 4 percent of SUNY’s first-time undergraduates. If a similar rate holds nationwide, this would suggest over 120,000 college applicants each year with felony convictions.”

Not all applicants enroll, but approximately 2.9 million become first-time freshmen in a post-secondary school each year. Extrapolating, about four percent of college students and recent graduates have felony convictions. With just under 20 million currently enrolled students at any given time, that means that about 800,000 currently enrolled students have felony convictions and about the same for recent grads, so this is a problem that impacts about 1.6 million, college-educated adults…and their family, friends, and society.

So, if you’re a student searching for an internship or recent graduate hunting for an entry-level job and you also have a felony conviction, understand that this is a problem that impacts not just you but also about 1.6 million others. That’s tragic but has the silver lining that what you’re going through is similar to what others have also gone through and at least some of them have met with success.

Below are ten tactics for students searching for internships and recent graduates hunting for entry-level jobs who also have felony or other criminal records:

  1. Learn your rights. Call your state’s Department of Labor to learn about the pre-employment screening laws that apply to people with criminal records in your state. You may not have to report your criminal record or you may have other options available to you, such as getting it erased, which is called expunged. In addition, laws such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) offer significant protections and are often violated by employers. If you know your rights, you’re in a better position to encourage or even force employers to follow the law and that may be the difference between you being hired or not.
  2. Review your criminal record. A substantial number contain errors. If yours has an error, you’re going to want to get that corrected before a prospective employer sees it.
  3. Get your record expunged or sealed. Many states will effectively erase your record for minor offenses such as misdemeanors and even non-violent felonies. If your record is expunged or sealed, you may be able to legally answer “no” when asked if you have a criminal record.
  4. Pursue jobs not off-limits to those with criminal records. Many occupations that require training at trade schools or vocational colleges are open to those with criminal records.
  5. Build your skills. Employers want to hire people who they know can do the job. Whether you get work experience through part-time or temporary work or even through volunteering doesn’t matter much to most employers. Look into organizations such as Persevere, a non-profit that teaches inmates how to code. Once released from prison, they help with various transitional needs, including job placement. Their sister company, Banyan Labs, hires Persevere graduates for software development jobs and then gives them six months of on-the-job training. Some of the associates go on to be hired by other companies while some stay at Banyan Labs longer term. Finally, don’t overlook the idea of starting your own business.
  6. Seek help from organizations. According to Trade Schools, “almost every major city is home to local agencies and private charities that offer services geared toward helping ex-offenders. Many smaller communities have helpful organizations as well. So it’s possible to find programs that provide assistance with job training, finding employment, and developing life skills that lead to success. One example of a program that helps some ex-offenders is STRIVE. With affiliates across the country, it provides free job skills training, placement assistance, and a variety of other support services to disadvantaged and formerly incarcerated individuals in the inner city. In some regions, you can also find subsidized employment programs that help ex-offenders. When employers hire participants of such programs, they receive help in paying the new employees’ wages for a trial period of time. That way, employers have more incentive to provide opportunities to people with criminal histories.”
  7. Seek help from individuals. The most common way for someone to find a job is through their network.
  8. Tell the truth. But that doesn’t mean that you need to tell the whole truth. In other words, don’t lie but also don’t feel compelled to share with a prospective employer information that they aren’t seeking. For example, if they ask if you have a criminal record, say yes but don’t also get into the details of what you were convicted of. If they ask that, tell them but don’t get into the details of the criminal acts you committed. If they ask if you’ve been convicted of a felony within the past five years and your conviction was six years ago, truthfully answer no and don’t volunteer information about your conviction. If it was relevant to them, they’d ask the question.
  9. Market yourself. Everyone has skills. All skills are transferable, meaning that a skill learned in one job can be made useful in another job. Don’t trust an employer’s ability or willingness to understand your experience or ability to do the job. Make it easy for them. Clearly and concisely state what in your background makes you a very low risk for them to hire. Employers want to hire people they know they can do the job. Demonstrate that to them by telling them about experiences you’ve had that are similar to the work they need done.
  10. Follow-up. Very few job seekers consistently follow-up after applying or being interviewed and a shockingly large number of employers assume that job seekers who have not followed up are no longer interested. Send the employer a thank you note — preferably through snail mail — the same day you’re interviewed. Ask at each stage what the next stage is and the likely timing. Follow-up within a day or two of that to re-affirm your interest and provide them with something tangible that puts you in a positive light. For example, if you’ve applied to be a server in a restaurant, send the owner a link to a new recipe that they may find interesting or a story about a large business opening down the street.

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