Skilled & Qualified: A Different Narrative for Returning Citizens


Discussions about jobs, income, housing, and education are typically at the forefront of re-entry conversations.  These are crucial conversations to have; however, many individuals have a perception of returning citizens that put all formerly incarcerated individuals into a box of being low-skilled, uneducated, and/or possessing little talent.  Additionally, assumptions are made that all returning citizens have never had a legitimate, legal way of earning an income.    

A lack of skill, education, or talent may be true in some cases; however, data show that many individuals who are incarcerated were employed prior to their arrest. According to the U.S. Department of Education's 2014 Program of the International Assessment of Adult Competencies Survey of Incarcerated Adult's Skills, Work Experience, Education, and Training, "around two-thirds (66 percent) of the survey’s respondents reported that they were working prior to their incarceration: about half of them (49 percent) were employed full-time, with another 16 percent working part-time. The other 34 percent of incarcerated adults were not in the paid workforce: approximately 19 percent were unemployed, with the remaining 16 percent reporting they were either students, permanently disabled, looking after family members, in retirement, or in other unspecifed situations."  Returning citizens are sometimes former physicians, engineers, educators, contractors, designers, contstruction workers, etc.. We must appreciate that one's skills, talents and abilities do not disappear during their time behind bars.  

The issue here is not a lack of skill or talent, it is a lack of opportunity. Many returning citizens cannot return to the industries that had previously benefited from their skillsets and talents.  Whether it is licensing restrictions, policies, or negative perceptions, many returning citizens do not have the ability to put their backgrounds to meaningful use post-incarceration.  

Note: There is a valid argument against some individuals returning to their industry based on the crime in which they were convicted.  However, if the conviction is not relevant to the job at hand, employers should be encouraged to base hiring decisions on qualifications, not solely one's background. 

In an effort to change this perception, it is incumbent on advocates, allies, and others involved in re-entry conversations to communicate the message that many returning citizens are worthy of  meaningful jobs (and incomes) based on their skills, education,  or talents.   We must collectively work to change the narrative about returning citizens being "less than" when it comes to competence.  Many returning citizens want nothing more than to prove they can be a valuable asset to both their employer and society.      

As a second-chance innovator and employer, our Zero Model work is based on the premise that skill and talent are not attributes that are exclusive and reserved for certain groups of people.  We continually work to change the narrative that surrounds returning citizens from a low-skill and low-talent mindset to one that embraces individuals who are skilled and qualified.  We boldly encourage others to do the same.