Did you know that in the United States, there are nearly as many people with college degrees as there are with criminal records?
So, you’re one of those who has a criminal record, quite possibly a felony conviction. A past mistake shouldn’t deter you from trying to make a better life for yourself. Your criminal record doesn’t have to define who you want to become.
Many—if not most—trade schools welcome ex-convicts the same way they would anyone else. Sure, there are some limitations ex-felons may experience, but with a mixture of hard work and determination, your second chance may only be a certificate or degree away. There are many types of trade schools to explore if you're undecided.
Do Trade Schools Accept People With Felonies?
Fair enough question. The answer is yes: Trade schools and community colleges typically allow ex-convicts to enroll in their programs. This isn’t to say you won’t face any obstacles—you may, especially if you need housing. If you have had a violent or drug related conviction, it may be harder to gain entrance into trade school or community college programs. In those instances, an online trade school program could be right for you.
When thinking about the career path you'd like to take, keep the nature of your conviction in mind. A drug charge may prohibit you from careers in the medical field, and any money-related convictions will likely keep you from accounting jobs.
Prior to deciding what trade to head into, think about what the employment policies are within that field and if background checks will be a factor. No matter what, do not give up! There are so many programs out there available to you, it’s just a matter of patience and finding the right one.
Steps to Take to Get into College With a Record
- Find the right program for you. Figure out what you want to do and where you want to go. Check out the school’s guidelines on ex-convicts through the school website or by calling its admissions department.
- Highlight all your positives within your admissions letter. The college or trade school already knows you’re a felon; they need to know who you are as a person and all the fantastic things you have to offer!
- If you need financial help, start looking for financial aid. Long story short, most felons, aside from drug-related, are allowed access to financial aid opportunities. We will cover this in greater detail further in this article.
- One of the best ways to showcase your personal growth is to have excellent references and recommendations. Whether it’s a letter from an employer, current or past, or even your parole or probation officer; glowing letters of recommendation better your chances of being accepted into a trade school/community college program.
Best Careers to Consider
Good jobs may be hard to come by, especially if you have a felony conviction on your record. Difficult to find doesn’t mean impossible. There are quite a few industries that heavily employ qualified ex-convicts. It’s been proven that ex-felons who have careers are less likely to re-enter the system. That’s the best side of the statistic to be on.
Here is a list of some of the top jobs for ex-felons:
As you can see, many of these jobs are in the skilled trades.
- HVAC: HVAC careers are among the most popular for ex-felons. However, the ability to become licensed will be determined by your conviction. Find a local HVAC school now.
- Construction laborer: This is one of the lower-skilled jobs, but to work in the industry, it doesn't matter what you were convicted of. It just matters if you pass the interview process.
- Electrician: Like most other skilled trades, your conviction will determine whether or not you can become a licensed electrician. However, it's good to note that many electrical contractors are ex-felons as well and are happy to support others in their endeavors. Find an electrical school near you.
- Plumber: To work as a residential plumber, you cannot have any theft or violent convictions, because you are being trusted to enter people’s homes. There are some plumbers who will train ex-convicts as apprentices.
- Welder: There is a desperate need for welders right now in America. And it’s a short-term process to become one. This makes welding a great option for ex-felons. Find a local welding school.
- Commercial truck driver: Many ex-felons choose trucking careers because of how willing the trucking companies seem to be to give them a second chance. Parolees might not be eligible for long-haul trucking. Find CDL training near you.
- Auto mechanic: The auto mechanic industry is known for giving ex-felons opportunities. A trade school certificate is necessary to work as an auto mechanic, and it doesn’t take very long to get. Find a local mechanic school.
- Graphic design: If you’re artistic, then consider becoming a graphic designer. While you may encounter some hiring restrictions, it is still possible to be hired as a designer, depending on your conviction. You may even be able to work as a freelancer.
- Web designer: Being a web designer or developer is a perfect job for someone who wants to work as a freelancer. Many web designer or developer freelance roles create opportunities for ex-felons who know their way around technology and programming.
- Carpenter: Carpentry is part of the construction industry, and licensing is required in most states. Many people with felonies have created successful carpentry businesses. Some may even give back and hire other ex-convicts.
Financial Aid Facts
Even though students with convictions are not eligible for many forms of financial aid, there is still financial support available. You CAN get financial help, depending on the type of conviction on your record. Even then, there are still ways to get financial aid if you need it to go to trade school or college.
Whether or not you think you’re eligible for federal financial aid, apply for the FAFSA. Most schools use the FAFSA to determine even their own non-federally funded financial aid options.
Financial aid eligibility factors for FAFSA
- If you are still in the prison system but know the approximate day you'll be released, and you also know that you plan on going to school, apply for the FAFSA. You are not eligible, but once you’re released, that status is likely to change.
- If you’re on parole, probation, or living in a halfway house, you may still be eligible for federally funded financial aid.
- A drug conviction does affect your eligibility for federal financial aid from the FAFSA. If you already had been approved for financial aid before your conviction, you can regain your eligibility by completing an approved drug rehab program, or by passing two random drug tests. If you had not yet registered for the FAFSA before your conviction, you would be asked to fill out a worksheet on the FAFSA form to determine your eligibility. Lastly, if you were convicted after you submitted your FAFSA, you may lose all eligibility and be forced to pay back the money already used for school.
- Any convictions of crimes that were sexual in nature will exclude you from being eligible for the federal Pell grant or federal financial aid money.
- When in doubt, and if it’s possible, meet with the financial aid department of the school you’re planning to attend.
The process of receiving financial aid is the same across the board, whether or not you have a prior conviction. First, you must fill out the FAFSA! To do this, you need to be a U.S. citizen, have a valid social security number, and have a high school diploma, GED, or pass an approved ability-to-benefit (ATB) test.
When you’re applying, make sure to use your current address, even if it’s that of a correctional facility. You’ll need all your financial information near you to fill out the online form. Just answer the questions accurately, save the information to the website, and see how much federal money you would qualify for.
As far as private loans go, it’s not impossible for an ex-offender to get one. It’s just not as easy when you have a record that is less than ten years old. Ex-felons can get credit cards if they have decent credit, so putting classes on the card is a possibility—just make sure it is financially feasible. As long as you’re qualified for the FAFSA, you’ll be eligible to get school loans and grants.
There are not any scholarships that are specifically for ex-felons, but there are many scholarship opportunities open to the public that ex-felons can apply for. Some require essay writing while others have different sets of rules. Speak with an advisor from the financial aid department of your chosen school.
Read our financial aid guide.
Job Interview Tips
Okay—you’ve finished school, and you’re holding your diploma or degree excitedly. Now it’s time to put that education to use and get a job in the field you’ve studied so hard for. Here are some interview tips specifically for ex-convicts. Go get ‘em!
- Be honest. It is the best policy. If you lie on your application, it will most likely disqualify you from getting the job.
- Answer questions directly; but don't over-explain—especially not during the first interview. If the employer voices some concerns, address them to the point and stay on topic.
- Steer away from negative conversation, especially at the beginning and end of the interview. Remember, your first and last impressions are the most important.
- Stay in the present, and use every opportunity to do so. Instead of focusing on past mistakes, discuss what you've been currently doing, why you're focusing on this specific career path, and how you've been bettering yourself overall.
- Maintain level-headed, normal, eye contact. That goes for everyone, ex-convicts or not.
- Stand and sit tall and proud. You’ve come a long way; you should be incredibly proud of yourself. Whatever your conviction was, you are overcoming its negative impact, and that’s an amazing accomplishment. Be sure that you present yourself in a manner that reflects your personal growth.
- Act natural. Showing signs of stress, while normal, can throw off an interview.
- Practice your interview skills as often as possible. The more you practice, the more natural interviews can feel. And hey, interviews are hard for many people, so don’t stress over what you’re feeling. Instead, focus on your personal and professional strides.
Benefits for Employers
Ex-convicts can have a tough time finding a job. According to a BLS publication, 50-58% of young male ex-convicts were still unemployed after a year of job hunting. An ex-convict can make a reliable employee; just make sure to do your due diligence in researching the legal and ethical course of their past actions.
- Did you know your company is entitled to tax breaks through the Work Opportunity Tax Credit? Through hiring veterans and at-risk employees, it allows your company a tax break. Over $1 billion per year in tax credits are given.
- The Federal Bonding Program from the Department of Labor provides Fidelity Bonds for "at risk" job seekers and their potential employers. This bond covers the first six months of employment.
- Ex-convicts can make excellent, dedicated, and loyal employees.
- Helping an ex-convict gain employment is not only helping one person, but can benefit the community as a whole.
Past mistakes should never define us. Whichever career path you decide to pursue, there are resources available to help you achieve your dreams.
Reference and more reading:
- HVAC Technician Job Description and Salary
- Electrician Training FAQ
- Requirements for Applying to Welding Trade School
- CDL Practice Tests
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, The Economics Daily, Employment of young men after arrest or incarceration at https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2019/employment-of-yo... (visited August 13, 2021)