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Employment Pathways: How Former Offenders Navigate to Employment

Published onNov 01, 2017
Employment Pathways: How Former Offenders Navigate to Employment


Employment is one of the most critical dimensions of reintegration, and much research documents the barriers formerly incarcerated persons experience in seeking out steady work. However, most offenders are ultimately successful in obtaining some form of employment. Less research discusses how offenders  man age these barriers or examines the practice by which offenders navigate employment pathways, and even less examines whether particular offense categories further challenge the process. The current research utilizes qualitative data to examine the methods by which ex-offenders seek out and obtain employment, with an emphasis on the function of self-motivating practices, access to services, and the utilization of social capital. The analysis further differentiates between sex offenders and non-sex offenders in these experiences. Our findings suggest ex-offenders rely on many types of resources in seeking out employment, and that these differ by offense type, but underlying motivation and persistence are key components in their search. Understanding these methods is important, as a comprehensive understanding of successful navigation to employment can inform policy in relation to improved guidance on advising employment searches.


More than 1.6 million individuals are incarcerated in state and federal facilities, with another 5 million under some form of community supervision (Cullen & Jonson, 2012). Approximately 600,000 offenders are released from custodial care each year (Carson, 2015; Holzer, Raphael, & Stoll, 2003) and more than two million offenders serve time in the community under felony probation supervision (Kaeble & Bonczar, 2016). Many of those under correctional supervision are optimistic in reflecting on their future, though myriad studies demonstrate the continuing challenges a felony background presents for successful reintegration. Importantly, these do not comprise  a homogenous group of individuals, but differ greatly by criminal history  and social experiences. In particular, individuals convicted of sex offenses face numerous legal and stigmatic challenges post-conviction, and may have unique experiences during the reintegration process.

Obtaining adequate employment is one of the most important yet challenging tasks an exoffender will face upon release (Holzer et al., 2003; Morani, Wikoff, Linhorst, & Bratton, 2011; Pager, 2007; Visher & Travis, 2003). Typically mandated as a parole condition, employment also provides economic stability, demonstrates a commitment to conventional activities, and fills free time that could otherwise be used for criminal behavior. While much research illustrates the many barriers felons face when seeking out employment (Harris & Keller, 2005; Pager, 2003; Petersilia, 2003), many scholars find that a number of ex-offenders do rejoin the labor market upon release from incarceration in spite of such obstacles (Ray, Grommon, & Rydberg, 2016; Visher, Debus, & Yahner, 2008). Although the sustainability and quality of such employment remain in debate, passing the initial threshold of employment is promising in understanding successful paths to reintegration. Recent advances—both quantitative and qualitative—do showcase some insight into how some successfully traverse through barriers or how employment success is achieved, but our knowledge remains limited. For example, the impact of specific offense histories has yet to be examined, and broad inductive processes of identifying pathways are atypical. Sex offenders face numerous legal restrictions, impacting many facets of the reentry process, including housing and employment. Further, stigma issues are particularly intense for sex offenders and may enhance employment challenges. Having better comprehension of post felony conviction employment navigation will better inform policy and aid in developing more successful reentry plans.

Theoretical background and review of the relevant literature

Theoretical perspectives

Scholars characterize employment as one of the most important components of reintegration, often tied to reduced recidivism (Holzer et al., 2003; James, 2015; Travis, Solomon, & Waul, 2001; Visher et al., 2008). For example, Skardhamar and Telle (2012) found that former inmates who were employed have a substantially lower rate of recidivism than those who remained unemployed after incarceration (33% versus 71%). Sex offenders similarly benefit from employment, as research demonstrates employment to be specifically associated with a reduction in sexual recidivism (Kruschnitt, Uggen, & Shelton, 2000). Research consistently highlights the benefit of employment, though theoretical explanations of the mechanism by which this occurs remain myriad and diverse. Some scholars contend that employment provides economic stability, linking it to a strain perspective  in which not having income may result in criminal behavior (Agnew, 2003). Others argue that employment also fills idle time and produces more structured routine activities for an individual, thereby reducing their general opportunity for criminal behavior (Miller, 2013; Osgood, Wilson, O’Malley, Bachman, & Johnston, 1996). Still, others suggest employment acts as a signaling mechanism, demonstrating a recommitment to society and conventional lifestyle (Mears & Mestre, 2012; Solomon, Johnson, Travis, & McBride, 2004), which fits within a desistance framework. Life-course criminology provides further support for the saliency of employment for ex-offenders. Specifically, employment has been found to be a turning point from criminal to conformist in life trajectories of career criminals (Sampson & Laub, 1993; Uggen, 2000). Given the vast support for these theoretical underpinnings, the importance of offender pathways to legitimate and sufficient employment cannot be overstated.

Employment experiences

Looking beyond criminology specifically, a broader sociological literature focuses on labor market experiences, including job-seeking tactics. Largely noted is the importance of utilizing broad social networks as well   as formal strategies (Elliot, 1999; Granovetter, 1985; Lin, 1999). In his pivotal work, Granovetter (1973; 1985) thoroughly describes the relationship between social ties and a variety of societal institutions, including economic and employment markets. In particular, informal networks have been documented as especially effective in accessing the workforce, over and above more formalized mechanisms such as employment agencies or responses    to job advertisements. Chapple (2006) echoes this observation, noting that social capital becomes increasingly crucial when formal job-seeking mechanisms or individual motivations are absent or unsuccessful; subsequently, social or professional contacts who can link job seekers to potential employment gain even greater importance in a competitive job market. Moreover, these intermediaries may also aid in overcoming barriers such as discrimination, which affects numerous marginalized populations, including ex-offenders (Chapple, 2006).

Former offenders and employment

Much knowledge exists regarding general employment search strategies. However, formerly incarcerated persons likely face a markedly different labor market. Research suggests otherwise marginalized populations differ in their employment experiences, due to social isolation or lack of opportunity to engage in normative job-seeking behaviors (see Elliott, 1999; Lin, 1999). Former offenders constitute a marginalized population, facing numerous barriers to successful employment. Disadvantaged backgrounds that include limited exposure to legitimate work, histories of unstable employment, compromised interpersonal communication skills and/or education deficits, health issues, insufficient housing, inadequate transportation, and substance abuse, among other challenges, make ex-offenders less desirable employees (James, 2015; Travis et al., 2001; Visher et al., 2008). In addition, having a history of incarceration acts as an additional stigmatization that makes potential employers hesitant to hire ex-offenders (Pager, 2003; Pager,  Western, & Sugie, 2009; Ray et al., 2016;  Travis et al., 2001;  Visher  et al., 2008). Pager (2003; Pager, Western, & Sugie, 2009) found individuals with criminal records were 50% less likely to receive an offer of employment than their similarly situated peers without records. Those who are further marginalized by race or criminogenic factors may face additional disadvantage, as Pager (2003) demonstrated both criminal and racial penalties. Similarly, the pervasive label of a sex offender is particularly stigmatizing in the eyes of employers (Brown, Spencer, & Deakin, 2007), and the public nature of the offense makes maintaining employment difficult (Tewksbury & Lees, 2006). Finally, most states impose blanket bans that prevent ex-offenders from working in certain professions including “law, real estate, medicine, nursing, physical therapy, and education” (Travis et al., 2001, p. 31; see also Hickox, 2016), which often extend beyond the period of supervision.

Barriers to employment are well established, but most ex-offenders obtain employment post-incarceration (though notably, at a lesser rate than non-offenders, and in less stable environments). Visher and colleagues (2008) found that nearly half (43%) of their sample secured employment two months post-incarceration, and nearly two-thirds (65%) reported employment eight months post-release. Similarly, Ramakers and colleagues (2016) indicated more than half of those employed prior to incarceration were able to regain employment within six months of release. Although employment stability varied over time (Ramakers, Wilsem, Nieuwbeerta, & Dirkzwager, 2016; Visher et al., 2008), it is still critical to understand how this population navigates to employment. The limited research that considers employment pathways for ex-offenders documents a wide range of the use of social, human, and community capital (Ramakers et al., 2016; Ray et al., 2016; Visher et al., 2008). Ex-offenders often use a combination of strategies; Visher and colleagues (2008), for example, found that 86% of interviewees used multiple avenues in their employment search, with social capital being a key element in their queries.

Social capital

Social capital has long been understood as either social connectedness or the ability to use social ties in a productive way (Lin, 1999; Walker, Hempel, Unnithan, & Pogrebin, 2014). Walker and colleagues (2014) purport that social capital serves as an anchor or gateway to assistance, either through the direct provision of material or emotional needs, or through access to resources such as transportation or employment. It is important to note though, that the use of, and access to, capital varies by population. For example, Elliott (1999; 2001) demonstrated the importance of social capital for disadvantaged and minority populations, noting that social capital and employment access work differently for those of varying social positions. Specifically, Elliott (1999) first showed that the social isolation of individuals who reside within impoverished neighborhoods faced greater job market segregation, which led to increased reliance on informal contacts or social connections. He found these effects to have a more profound impact on less-educated job-seekers. In a later study, Elliott (2001) found that immigrants and native-born black populations relied almost exclusively on internal referrals for their employment opportunities.

Similarly, social ties have been identified as essential in many areas of prisoner reentry despite concern that incarceration itself degrades both social and human capital. Among the most fundamental reentry contributions of social ties are the provision and maintenance of stable housing (Walker et al., 2014), emotional support and prosocial influence (Hochstetler, DeLisi, & Pratt, 2010), and immediate needs such as clothing, transportation, and financial aid (Morani et al., 2011). In addition to these needs, social capital often momentously benefits post-incarceration employment. In one of the few comprehensive studies in this area, Visher and colleagues (2008) identify the use of social ties to gainful employment. Specifically, 72% of the parolees in their sample sought help from family or friends in seeking out employment. Other studies have similarly found  offenders  often utilize social networks to access employment markets (Farrall, 2004; Ramakers et al., 2016; Ray et al., 2016; Walker et al., 2014). Ray and colleagues (2016) indicated social networks often function as leads and provide employment opportunities in more ambiguous ways than other pathways. Word of mouth, references, and having an inside track to employment opportunities all functioned to boost employment, but their respondents were less certain in describing the value or utilization of the social network, though much of the sample still cited this pathway (Ray et al., 2016). Although little research examines differences in social capital by offense, it stands to reason sex offenders may receive less assistance from social networks. Some research indicates sex offenders report damaged relationships as a result of their specific type of conviction and may face legal barriers in accessing forms of social support (Robbers, 2009; Tewksbury & Lees, 2006).

However, most ex-offenders are generally able to use a combination of human and social capital, relying on prior experiences and employers to gain steady work. Visher et al. (2008) indicated that 21% of their sample contacted former employers in seeking out a job. Ramakers and colleagues (2016) found incarceration often disrupted employment ties, but nearly one-third of their sample was able to return to their prior employer immediately after release. Ray and colleagues (2016) similarly found their sample to anticipate returning to previous employers, particularly when those employers considered them good employees prior to their incarceration.

Pre-imprisonment experiences are also important to consider. Ramakers and colleagues (2016) found formerly incarcerated persons who had worked for prior employers for a longer duration were able to recapture employment with the specific employers. As skill sets became greater and more specialized, these effects heightened (Ramakers et al., 2016). In other words, it was not only a reliance on the relationship between employer and employee, but the accumulation of human capital gained in that position. This suggests formerly incarcerated persons often require both social and human capital in negotiating employment experiences.

Human capital and signaling

Much research documents the lack of human capital ex-offenders display (i.e., limited skills or experience), making employment more difficult to obtain. Subsequently, other pathways to successful employment are those that help strengthen marketability. Specifically, individualized programs include things like substance abuse counseling, treatment for mental and physical health, housing and transportation assistance, and education and/or technical training (Visher et al., 2008).

Many technical and vocational training programs offered in incarcerated settings also contribute to prison industries, both dedicated to the maintenance and operation of the prison itself and in manufacturing products like furniture, textiles, and automobile parts for outside consumer markets (Chang & Thompkins, 2002). Participating in these types of training programs allows inmates to utilize their acquired skills in an environment that mirrors the outside workforce. For example, the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIECP), which operates on both state and federal levels, seeks to provide inmate work opportunities that approximate private-sector employment (Hopper, 2013). PIECP offers inmate production that simultaneously contributes to society, offsets costs of incarceration, and assists with victim compensation and support for inmate families, all while preparing inmates for labor success upon release (Hopper, 2013; U.S. Department of Justice; 2004). The Minnesota Comprehensive Offender Reentry Plan (MCORP) assists reentering offenders by providing collaborative case management with institutional caseworkers and community supervision agents to promote a smooth transition from prison to community (Duwe, 2012). Before an individual leaves an incarcerated setting, their risks and needs are determined through motivational interviewing and LSI-R assessments in addition to reviews of their case files. These assessments are then used to develop SMART (small, measurable, attainable, realistic, and timely) reentry plans that target the specific goals and needs of individual offenders (Duwe, 2012). Duwe’s (2012) evaluation of the MCORP program demonstrated that, in addition to having decreased recidivism, participants had higher employment rates than those in the control group. Moreover, Duwe (2012) noted that MCORP broadened social support networks for participating offenders, and increased their level of participation in community support programming.

In addition to gaining social and human capital from program content, successful completion of programs that strengthen ex-offenders’ marketable skills and knowledge can also help them “signal” their employability to potential hires. Bushway and Apel (2012) describe the importance of this within the economic field. In the labor market, education is often marked    as an important signal for employers. In the reentry context, ex-offenders can often signal their efforts to become employable through completing programs, particularly those that are voluntary in nature. Bushway and Apel (2012) situate such program completion in a signaling framework as employers will view this participation as efforts toward desistance and as evidence of motivation. In addition to, and sometimes in lieu of, participating in programs to supplement their employment readiness, many individuals incorporate more formal efforts in their job-seeking strategies.

Self-reliance and formal efforts

The use of formal avenues to employment, such as agencies and employment advertisements, tends to surface in both general and offender-specific job searches. Visher and colleagues (2008) found nearly half (45%) of their sample used formal employment agencies in seeking employment, though approximately a third (30%) relied on help-wanted advertisements by local businesses and more than 61% scoured newspapers for job postings. Ray and colleagues (2016) found employment agencies to be the most frequently cited pathway to steady work. A number of ex-offenders also attempt to forge their own way in the job market. In Visher et al.’s (2008) sample, 58% of ex-offenders simply “pounded the pavement,” and an additional 12% looked through the Yellow Pages for relevant employment opportunities. Ray and colleagues (2016) similarly found a heavy self-reliance in job seeking, even among those reporting broad and strong social networks. One reason for the perhaps unexpected choice of ex-offenders not to utilize available social resources is a phenomenon known as “defensive individualism” (Ray et al., 2016, p. 349). This strikingly self-reliant approach to job-seeking stems from an effort to maintain one’s reputation and limit shame. In order to ensure they will not be viewed negatively in the eyes of their social contacts, defensive individualists avoid relying on them for fear of being burdensome or straining already tenuous relationships. Ex-offenders who are defensive individualists also find the failure to obtain gainful employment to be a personal deficiency (e.g., lack of motivation), rather than social or structural factors that may influence their negative labor market experiences (Ray et al., 2016).

One of the consistent themes attributed to defensive individualism, and documented elsewhere (see Pager, 2003; 2007; Visher et al., 2008), is stigma. As discussed previously, bearing a felony conviction creates numerous informal challenges for entering or reentering the labor market (Petersilia, 2003; Travis et al., 2001). Many of the offenders in Ray and colleagues’ (2016) sample identified stigma from their criminal record as a potential obstacle in obtaining post-release employment, and, while such concerns are prevalent among all types of offenders, the anticipation of stigma is something felt especially keenly by those convicted of sex crimes.

Sex offenders

Sex offenders constitute a special population of offenders, one that elicits a significant amount of societal anxiety which policymakers have answered with a number of “community protection policies” designed to protect society from sex crimes (Levenson, Brannon, Fortney, & Baker, 2007, p. 1). As such, sex offenders face a greater degree of stigmatization and employment difficulties compared to other classes of offenders. In Georgia, for example, sex offenders are subject to some of the toughest laws in the country (Shepard, 2012). Specifically, when applicable offenses are committed, offenders face restrictions in employment and residency locations, as well as sex offender registration requirements. In July of 2014, then Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee signed legislation that bans sex offenders from employment in “child-safe zones” (Bogdan, 2014, para. 2). Such zones are defined as “child care facilities, elementary and secondary schools, playgrounds, health-care facilities for minors, and any place intended primarily for use by minors” (Bogdan, 2014, para. 6). Sex offenders face legal restrictions to diminish the possibility of interaction with potential victims, such as retail or serviceoriented employment (CSOM, 2007). They also face heightened stigma in employment markets as employers are reluctant to hire former sex offenders (Brown et al., 2007) and some former offenders report losing their job due to their presence on the sex offender registry (Tewksbury & Lees, 2006). In sum, ex-offenders with sex crimes on their record currently face magnified barriers to community reentry and in rejoining labor markets.

Ultimately, it appears employment plays a significant role in successful offender reintegration by not only providing income and increasing quality of life, but also by establishing stability and a “sense of structure and responsibility” (Visher et al., 2008, p. 6). However, in the course of seeking employment, ex-offenders face significant barriers including stigmatization. Sex offenders are particularly affected by such issues and are thus more difficult to employ. Despite these somewhat bleak prospects, research has established some pathways that offenders can utilize to increase their likelihood of obtaining employment in a legitimate labor market. This is especially important when one considers that research also demonstrates that such interventions aimed at helping offenders obtain employment and a living wage provide benefits for not only the offenders themselves, but also their families and the larger society (Solomon et al., 2004).

The current study

Research has documented the vast challenges to employment many ex-offenders face, and there has been some preliminary insight into strategies for managing these barriers. Social support and relationships play an integral role for ex-offenders, often providing housing, financial aid, emotional support, and many other beneficial interventions. Visher and colleagues (2008) give some documentation of how offenders  acquire  employment, but less is known about different offense groups in terms of utilizing those strategies. The current study seeks to add to the existing body of literature by investigating pathways to employment for both ex-offenders who have committed sex crimes and non-sex offenders. By using qualitative methodology, narrative accounts provide more insight into the process of employment searches and related reasoning, highlighting the important role of networks and services in establishing employment.

Data and methods

Data come from in-depth interviews conducted between 2010 and 2012 with persons under correctional supervision for having a felony conviction. The interviews were conducted as part of larger studies broadly evaluating the experiences of reentry.1 Respondents described their experiences with employment as well social support, housing, and treatment histories. To evaluate pathways, we draw from 109 interviewees who were actively seeking (or had sought) employment.2 Data were collected at seven sites throughout a Midwest state, primarily at probation and parole offices, but also included a community residential facility and treatment center. We scheduled interviews primarily on report dates to facilitate higher and more varied participation. Each agent provided an explanation of the research project    to their client and offered the opportunity to participate; respondents were compensated $20. With this type of research design, gathering information from a target population as opposed to random sampling is a key strategy. As these participants were serving time under correctional supervision, they met our criteria of examining the social and structural experiences post-felony conviction. Interviews were conducted on-site and lasted approximately one hour. The overall interview guide was modeled after prior research of this nature (see Visher et al., 2008). The interviews were semi-structured, following a general pattern of questioning but permitting extensive probing and open-ended follow-up questions, which allowed the respondents’ pathways to employment to emerge. A large portion of the interview focused on employment experiences both prior to and after incarceration.3 Appendix A represents a sampling of the employment-related questions utilized in the interview guide.4 Each question allowed for probing and follow up, which varied by participant and interviewer in how these were utilized. We recorded audio for each interview and later transcribed the narratives.

The final sample consisted of 109 ex-offenders convicted of a felony: 71.7% personal crimes (n=76, 57 of which were sex crimes), 14.7% nonviolent crimes (n=16), and 12.8% drug crimes (n=4). Just over half of the participants reported that their most recent incarceration was not their first time in prison (58.7%, n=63), and the average number of times in prison was 1.92.5 The vast majority of interviewees were male (97.2%, n=106) and on parole (78.9%, n=86), and the average age of participants was 38.86 years. Approximately a third of the sample was nonwhite (29%, n=32) and most had no more than a high school diploma or GED (67%, n=73). Sex offenders were older and more educated than their counterparts. Sex offenders were also more likely to be under parole supervision, had been under community supervision for a longer period of time at the interview, and had spent a significantly longer time period incarcerated than non-sex offenders. Criminal histories were varied, and most had experienced prior incarceration. The time spent in prison ranged widely, but approximately two-thirds of the sample spent less than three years in prison under their current sentence. Similarly, time under community supervision ranged from one month out to more than ten years; however, the majority of the sample (61.4%) had been out for less than one year. Table 1 presents a description of the sample.

At the time of the interviews, 51 participants currently held jobs, but almost three-quarters of the interviewees reported that they had been employed at some point post-release (71.6%, n=78). A majority of interviewees reported a perception of discrimination during the employment process (57.8%, n=63),6 though there were no statistical differences between sex-offenders and non-sex offenders in these employment experiences (not shown). Of those who were employed, the time it took them to secure a job varied widely. The average search length was approximately one year (11.38 months), but a handful of participants reported having work within a few days (n=9, 12.2%) while others took 18 months or more (n=8, 10.8%). Sex offenders appeared to find work more quickly than their counterparts (p<.05). Table 2 provides an overview of these employment experiences.

Table 1. Sample descriptive statistics (n=109)



Sex offender

Non-sex offender





Gender (1=male)





38.86 (11.24)

38.45 (11.53)

32.11 (8.97)

Race (1=nonwhite)












Less than 12th




H.S. equivalency




Some college or more




Criminal background




Offense type




Sex crime




Other personal













Prior incarceration




Sentence length***

52.78 (68.99)

74.29 (79.55)

20.51 (27.23)

Time since release*

17.58 (23.44)

23.61 (29.67)

11.55 (12.53)

Note: Results of Pearson’s Chi Square test: † p<.10 *p <.05, ** <.01, ***<.001

Table 2. Employment descriptive statistics (n=109)

 Employment variables

Mean/frequency (S.D.)



Employed post-release



1=Employed at any point post-release

Search length

11.38 (31.12)


Number of months it took to find a job

Currently unemployed



1=Employed at the time of the interview




1=Reported discrimination during job search

Given the broader nature of data collection, the current study includes a higher proportion of sex offenders than is found in general offending populations, as well as an older and more educated sample. While sex offenders are often considered a unique subset of offender, those convicted of a sex crime also reported involvement in a variety of criminal activities, indicating they may be representative of a “typical” offender. However, we took care during the analysis to compare employment experiences of sex offenders versus those convicted of other types of crimes and found their differential histories and life experiences did have some impact on the utilization    of employment pathways. This adds to the current literature and presents additional questions about the relationship between offense types and employment experiences.


To analyze the data, we independently coded the data with the assistance of NVivo, a qualitative data analysis program. Data had been initially sorted into broad themes such as any references to housing, employment, or social support experiences. From the larger employment file containing all references and experiences of employment, we evaluated the data by broadly coding types of employment searches, guided by prior literature. References fell into three general themes (discussed in the results), from which we continued open coding. Open coding refers to the process of assigning words or phrases to small pieces of data, from which particular themes and experiences can be grouped to understand general outcomes. The specific experiences of non-sex offenders and sex offenders were then comparatively analyzed to determine if these groups utilized different methods in their employment search. Overall, there was very high inter-rater reliability, with over 90% initial agreement on assigning offenders to a specific pathway. We met to discuss any discrepancies and came to an agreement on where the individuals best fit.


Much like Visher and colleagues (2008), we found ex-offenders employ a multitude of methods when seeking out employment. Although not described in detail here, the participants experienced a variety of typical barriers many ex-offenders express. This includes stigmatization-which was particularly prevalent for sex offenders—as well as lack of marketable skills for employment and sporadic work histories. Despite these barriers, nearly two-thirds reported that they were employed at some point post-conviction, and just under half reported employment at the time of the interview. Given the relatively high accessibility of employment (at least temporarily), followup questions during the interviews inquired as to how these participants  navigated existent challenges to employment. The results demonstrate that pathways and methods of obtaining employment varied a great deal among the ex-offenders, but centered on service provision, the use of both formal and informal social ties, and self-motivating practices which highlighted offender agency. Most employment efforts were in some way intertwined with an effective utilization of social capital, which seemed to mediate common employment barriers.

The way in which interviewees used job-seeking mechanisms was not uniform among all ex-offenders, which emerged throughout the qualitative narratives. In particular, differences emerged when comparing sex offenders —who experience greater legal and stigmatic challenges—to non-sex offenders, who, despite facing less post-conviction social stigma, still found difficulty in accessing legitimate and sustainable employment. Table 3 summarizes the frequencies and differences among the sample in their utilization  of identified pathways. Pearson’s chi-square tests revealed that non-sex offenders were significantly more likely to use programs or agencies than their sex offender counterparts (χ=3.99, p< 05). Additionally, sex offenders were less likely to report being a self-starter (χ=5.98, p<.05), but no significant  differences were found between the groups for the social network pathway. Though these empirical analyses are useful to an extent in demonstrating that differences occur, they are largely incomplete, as they cannot provide information on why such differences are observed. Thus, narrative accounts of the ex-offenders’ employment-seeking experiences obtained through qualitative interviews provide much greater insight for participants’ pathways to employment and are presented in more detail below.

Table 3. Employment pathway frequencies


Total frequency (n=109)

Non-sex offenders (n=48)

Sex offenders (n=61)


57.8% (n=63)

70.8% (n=34)

47.5% (n=29)

Services/program use*

39.4% (n=43)

50% (n=24)

31.1% (n=19)


21.1% (n=23)

27.1% (n=13)

16.4% (n=10)

Community program

16.5% (n=18)

20.8% (n=10)

13.1% (n=8)

Program participation

10.1% (n=11)

16.7% (n=8)

4.9% (n=3)

Social network†

51.4% (n=56)

41.7% (n=20)

59.0% (n=36)

Prior employer

15.6% (n=17)

12.5% (n=6)

18.0% (n=11)

Family or Friend Network

43.1% (n=47)

37.5% (n=18)

47.5% (n=29)

Multiple pathways

41.3% (n=45)

47.9% (n=23)

36.1% (n=22)

Note: Results of Pearson’s Chi Square test: † p<.10 *p <.05, ** <.01, ***<.001.


Although employment is also a typical condition of parole, most of the respondents (57.8%, n=63) suggested they started off with their own motivation and drive in their initial employment search. Within this theme, persistence emerged as a key component as well as a wide scope in terms of type of employment. It was not uncommon for offenders to continually apply to the same job, often attempting to speak directly to the hiring manager. Joel simply stated, “Just applying everywhere I can … Basically going from store to store to store and asking are you hiring? Craig’s List, anything I can do to find out who’s hiring. And how I can apply.” When given the chance to speak to a potential employer, ex-offenders were able to explain who they were and often took the opportunity to explain their criminal history and their renewed commitment to legitimate employment. Interviewees reported breadth in application targets, noting the importance of any employment as a first step.

Search efforts for a number of participants were general, starting with legitimate job advertisements but often broadening to more random and informal encounters. The breadth of job search approaches was consistent across offenders, unrelated to length of time served, length of job search, and type of offense, despite sex offenders often having more specialized skills.7 Clifford described his job search as, “I go around … papers, I ask so many people. I even ask people standing in the lobby, I’ll go any place.” Marvin similarly recounted, “Where I started was me walking around asking people if they need help.” Another interviewee, Andrew, had expanded his search range to apply for jobs that he felt most qualified for, but mostly focused on opportunities that had few required qualifications. He described his job search process as first seeking out employment, “and then you go out, and just pound the pavement. So that’s what I’ve been doin’. I mean, nobody’s bitten, but I’ve been putting out applications.”

The participants exercised their own wits and efforts by going door-to-door in attempts to access formal employment but also gaining informal employment for an afternoon or a week. Participants favored this method  of in-person application over online application processes. This preference was partially accountable to a lack of capital in terms of computer access or transportation and geographical limitations, yet many participants also felt being face-to-face to explain their felony convictions would lead to better  success. Glenn explained, “Know what? I just pounded the pavement … I went from using a computer online—it’s a joke, that’s my personal opinion—to goin’ straight out and knockin’ on people’s doors. Knock on business doors and ask them personally.” This strategy was not without success, as the attitude of “why not?” translated into happenstance circumstances or participants simply being in the right place at the right time to have an otherwise nonexistent opportunity. Marcus provided an example of this, explaining, “I stopped, I was downtown putting in applications. And ran across it.” Also within this group were those already employed but continuing their persistence to gain better opportunities or advancement in their employment status.

While the majority of respondents in the self-starting pathway were non-sex offenders, there were also a substantial number of sex offenders who were particularly vocal about the stigma and barriers they faced due not only to having a felony past, but also because of their specific offense type. Gaining access to employment that was otherwise considered “felon friendly” was not as available for sex offenders, and they reported putting  in a lot of effort and self-starting behavior in order to access employment opportunities, as did those who had served a longer incarceration sentence. For these groups, there seemed to be a long-trailing stigma that employers were less willing to overlook. William explained, “Keep filling out applications, keep calling. And a lot of people obviously don’t want to hire a sex offender, or a felon, period. They don’t want to have nothing to do with it.” Though this stigma was not unique to sex offenders, they expressed more specific examples within this pathway.

Most of the individuals who expressed self-starting also utilized other pathways (67%; n=43), though it is important to note their personal initiative, as it illustrates basic determination and initial efforts from many of the ex-offenders to gain employment on their own. The participants generally expressed a great deal of pride in obtaining employment of their own volition, and many did not credit leads given by others or their aid in accessing resources that helped them obtain or seek out these jobs. What generally emerged in the narratives, however, is that many times these respondents did, in fact, receive help from others (services, official contacts, or social networks) but explicitly stated they found the job themselves, dismissing any involvement of employment agencies or referrals. This was generally a result of inadequate job placement or the perceived lack of responsiveness from those that tried to help. These respondents felt they had done everything right in gaining employment, and felt those who struggled with employment were not trying as hard to actually obtain a job. Importantly, the use of multiple pathways was not uncommon—but notably present in this group was a very strong sense of their own agency, persistence, and determination in their employment efforts even when assisted by others.

Though self-motivating pathways were an important and common part of the search for employment, it was not always a successful endeavor. This was enhanced when considering time served as well as length of time in the community. Although determination remained, the level of optimism and belief in self somewhat decreased as time went on in the community without obtaining legitimate or sustainable employment. In response, most participants reported utilizing a variety of outside resources in their search for employment in addition to self-motivated practices. Two major themes emerged: employment services or other officials, and a reliance on social capital. Each of these also broke into subthemes specific to each pathway.

Use of services and programs

First, official contacts and community agencies emerged as a critical assist to finding employment, or at least placing the participant in a position to be able to seek out employment (n=43). Often this was an immediate measure taken post-release, and in some cases led to permanent employment. Although employment agencies act as more of a universal advocate in the general employment market as compared to familial or other social references, the establishment of a recommendation of any sort benefited the individual. These services provided a twofold effect, either providing the participants   a position or resources to seek out employment, or directly placing the individual in a job. One of the main benefits of this pathway was the improved accessibility to opportunity, through access to resources (e.g., computers, the internet, transportation) or providing knowledge of employment that historically seemed willing to hire ex-offenders, and thereby bypassing the potential stigma of a felony conviction. Overall, sex offenders were less present in the immediate use of employment agencies or other community resources. As a group, this seemed mainly related to more difficulty in gaining access to these services given their specific record of having committed not just a felony, but a sex crime. Regardless of time served or time in the community, a substantial number of respondents, particularly non-sex offenders, reported utilizing temporary employment agencies (n=23). Troy described, “I’m out here every day, I’m going to several temp services a week. I’m gonna get some type of employment.” While popular, the level of success in transitioning to permanent job placement through temp services was less clear. The findings indicated that the lack of efficacy was due to two related reasons. First, ex-offenders are competing in an already crowded job market. Reporting a felony conviction remains an issue for many employers. As temporary employment agencies are not specifically designated for formerly incarcerated persons, there were still legal and stigmatic barriers to navigate on the parts of both the employment agency and respondent. Participants felt their felony background acted as a disadvantage and made them less competitive among nonfelons who were also dependent on the agency for employment. Relatedly, and noted in particular by non-sex offenders, was a weakness due to a lack of education and/or skill development, particularly in relation to technology. David provided a clear example of these related issues:

Well, I go through a temp service. And they usually find jobs pretty, pretty … all the time. And then, yeah, they haven’t really had anything lately. But, like they usually, pretty steady on finding jobs and everything. … And there’s a lot of jobs that I haven’t been able to get. Because I was eligible for, because I have my high school diploma and I have a little bit of college and stuff, I can weld and stuff like that. I have things that I can do, you know, that some other people can’t. And that’s actually affected me not getting three or four jobs. Because of my felonies.

The narratives demonstrated that temporary agencies still require effort and qualifications of the applicant: interview processes, persistence in following up, and being “placeable.” Again, in a competitive market, there was  a feeling among ex-offenders of not only being least eligible in the broad context of employment, but also least qualified. Despite these challenges, temporary agencies did have success for many ex-felons in immediate and frequent employment, if not permanent placement. Alexander demonstrated the instant benefit of temporary agencies, stating, “The first job, the temp service job, I was working the first week that I was out.” The balance of the access  to some form of employment against its longevity or appropriateness was a struggle that many respondents hinted at, as they continued to utilize other methods to find sustained employment. For example, although Alexander experienced immediate work, he had not found a permanent placement in two years with the agency, and had independently sought out a more stable job.

Beyond temporary agencies, the respondents also reported the use of more offender-specific resources (n=18), particularly older offenders and those who had served a longer period in prison. In contrast to employment agencies, these contacts were more personal and individually focused, and came from veterans’ assistance programs, parole officers, and community caseworkers.8 These types of contacts were often used in combination with other application procedures, particularly in terms of building up skills and services. The ex-offenders who reported access to services that targeted specific backgrounds, or had parole officers utilizing a more individualized case management approach, described success in their employment search, though access to these benefits was quite inconsistent across offenders. Surprisingly few respondents noted direct help from their parole officer, but were able to access agencies with some practitioner assistance. These agencies had more experience in interacting with felon populations and were better equipped to provide practical resources, though non-sex offenders were more prevalent in this pathway. Mario described spending a great deal of time at these agencies, indicating, “It gave me something to do. Midcity Club. St. John’s Center. I be down there all day. Because they have a lot of programs, and they try to help people find jobs and stuff like that. People that, companies that are tolerant.” These agencies had some leads to direct employment opportunities, as well as lists of “felon friendly” employers. Bradley explained, “Oh, they give me some sheets that got different jobs on it that hire convicted felons.” Community services also fulfilled a critical role in providing greater access to employment by means of computer availability or assistance with transportation to apply or arrive at an interview. Having a service provider often acted as a foot in the door, whereupon motivated individuals could take advantage of the opportunity and turn it into longer-term employment. Jose explained:

They wasn’t someone to basically, like St. John’s Center to represent me. They sent a letter of recommendation with me when I went to the job interview. That’s like, we need somebody to reference you, so we’ll say that you’ll come to work.

The difference in the utilization of these agencies by offense type was unclear, but due to the limited resources at the often non-profit or faith-based resources, there was likely a prioritization (or specific criteria) for whom they were able to serve. An alternative explanation may be that the needs   of sex offenders are potentially fewer, as this offense group often reports higher qualifications (such as education) as well as access to resources.

Finally, a small group noted access to training or services designed to better equip offenders for employment (n=11). Given the decreasing presence of rehabilitative programming available either in prison or through parole supervision, it is unsurprising that relatively few reported using these services to aid employment searches. Those who had experienced some type of programming expressed high praise, while those who did not lamented having missed the opportunity. Robert stated, “And them classes teach me how to be a better man at the same time [as skills]. So I  got  a  little skills, I’m trying to take it and run with it.” Consistently noted, especially by nonsex offenders, was a dearth of employable skills, which many wanted to rectify. Kyle described, “I was going through HOPE, and they were sending me through computer schooling to bring me up to date with society.”

Relatedly, there was a demand for improved guidance on the job search process. More structure from parole officers or other agencies was valued, such as access to “felon friendly” employment opportunities, and the participants indicated that more instruction would be welcome. A notable example was how to navigate applications that ask about criminal history, and what appropriate responses would be. Aaron responded, “He [program provider] should have just told us what to expect when we go in there [for jobs]. Exactly what to say.” While training and education are not necessarily direct pathways to employment, the participants indicated better preparation would ultimately help in employment navigation. In particular, rectifying technological and skill barriers of this population would help make ex-offenders more competitive in general agencies and job markets.

Social networks and capital

Unsurprisingly, social capital emerged as a critical aspect of gaining employment (n=56). Entwined with housing, financial, and transportation support, the participants described a variety of ways in which their social networks benefited their search for employment. Types of assistance that social networks supplied included emotional support to boost confidence or motivation, offering rides to interviews or applications, and acting as a reference. In addition to ex-offenders’ reliance on pre-incarceration employment history, these support mechanisms contributed to the emergence of social capital as a prominent and successful pathway to employment. This theme broke into two general paths: use of former employers or employment history, and social ties that consisted of family, friends, and community.

First, prior employment experiences were exalted in terms of success (n=17). This often aligned with a fairly long time investment or history with the agency (e.g., multiple years of experience) prior to incarceration as well as a shorter term of incarceration (e.g., less than a year). Justin (eight years with company prior to incarceration) explained, “It didn’t take me long at all [to find employment] because when I got locked up they told me whenever I got out to come back to work.” The invested time was likely significant in establishing greater credibility and more contextual knowledge of the offense and offender. Lance demonstrated this:

I’ve been with this company, AP, for like six years before I went to prison. I done that straight with ‘em before I even went in, you know. With the DWI, that’s what I went in there for, and I done had that straight with ‘em before I went in. I said I’m probably gonna do prison time over it, so he’s all cool with it.

Others had more general experience in the company—often fast food or franchised companies with a well-known corporate presence, which also acted as a voucher. Don, for example, returned to McDonald’s after “I just happened to call and ask if they were hiring. Just told them that I used to work there, and so they just called me in for an interview.” Similarly, Brandon had been steadily employed since his release, attributing his success to his work history, noting, “I was in the landscape industry before I went in.” Although there were not statistically significant differences between groups for this pathway, sex offenders particularly relied on prior employers, and greatly benefited from this second chance. Steven exemplified this, explaining a long history with his employer, “The manager, I worked there all through high school. I’m a distant relative of her and she supported me through my experience.” The established relationship aided in overcoming the potential stigma resultant from a conviction.

A substantial portion of respondents utilized their social networks in more expansive ways than reliance on history (n=47). Friends and family provided both direct and less tangible aid in the employment process. Similar to the use of agencies, it was not uncommon for these individuals to act as a reference or vouch for the ex-offenders’ reliability regardless of conviction experiences. The respondents relied on social networks both immediately upon return from prison as well as having years in the community job searching, and were often a returned-to method of job searching. Eugene found a job through his stepfather’s place of employment explaining his employer felt comfortable hiring him because, “Your stepdad does a good job and I don’t care about your past.” This aided in overcoming the felon status and, much like the community agencies, provided an access point that employers seemed to find dependable. Alan had an intimate partner who accounted for him, stating “My girlfriend, she worked there, she talked to the boss and he allowed me to come in.” Social capital also directed the participants to employment opportunities, both through word of mouth and acting as a motivator. Vincent described relying on friends to get started in his construction business, stating “It’s kind of a network type deal. More word of mouth.” Familial and friend connections also served as a direct access point into employment, particularly for those who had served more than a year in prison. Craig was able to join a construction crew, through a “buddy of mine. He’s got a crew. I got lucky”; in Frank’s case, he had an inside track to employment by “Knowing someone … who owned a company.” Those who had served less time often utilized social networks as references and support through the process rather than receiving direct placement.

Non-sex offenders utilized much broader networks, highlighting the idea of “the strength of weak ties” (Granovetter, 1973, p. 1360). Their use of both immediate social networks (e.g., intimate partners, immediate family, close friends) and more distant ties was notable. Calvin exemplified this, stating, “My kids’ mother, her mother told her about it and told her to give me the information.” Similarly, Edwin described, “I went out, last week, I got a call from one of my aunt’s old girlfriends.” Sex offenders, in contrast, primar   ily relied on closer social connections. One notable exception, however, was the inclusion of religious bonds, which only sex offenders referenced. Willie described the help his church gave him, explaining, “I was going to church, and a gentleman at the church actually had the—he was the director of the program, and he told me he had a computer lab and would allow me to come in and get online.” Without this access, Willie had fewer application options given the changing nature of employment applications. Overall, however, despite sex offenders facing greater stigmatic barriers, non-sex offenders were far more expansive in their utilization of social capital.

Interestingly, both sex offenders and non-sex offenders found employment through their criminal experiences, by accessing employment through individuals they had known in prison. This was not particularly common (n=4), but it was noted that these individuals knew where “felon friendly” employment existed. For example, Jesse explained, “one of the people that I’m in [DOC] class with actually told me to go to this place and put an application in. And he helped me get the job there.” Don similarly had a friend whom he was incarcerated with and, “[h]e told me about that job. I just called him, and he called me in for an interview.” Collectively, this suggests that ex-offenders rely on expansive systems consisting of those in the criminal justice system—including inmates—in addition to more traditional social networks.

Multiple methods

Finally, it is important to note that few respondents fell singularly into specific pathways. Often, it was understood that the challenge of successfully navigating to employment required a broad mind. Alfred explained his use of services in addition to needing to be self-motivated. His account of finding employment suggests this is necessary:

Beat the streets. Pretty much I was going through putting out applications online and everything like that. And once I got all that done—it took a couple weeks to do that—I got set up with HOPE, Greater Outreach, New Expectation, so I could get computer access. … Employment Association, yada yada yada. I say that like because I keep trying to tell people “Look, you can’t rely on that, get out and beat the streets.” So after that was done, then I set out and start putting out applications.

Specifically, many self-starters employed multiple methods, perhaps by way of getting a temporary placement while they were working to seek out more desirable employment or by learning of a job lead from a friend and, as Ernest says, “Just putting in the footwork following up.” In this sense, even with help from others, whether agencies, social contacts, or supervisors, it was essential that the participants acted of their own volition in successfully gaining the job. It was not a guarantee, but a stepping stone and an important component of the job search.

Discussion and conclusions

Within the ex-offender interviews in the current study, three primary pathways to employment emerged: self-starting, reliance on social networks, and use of programs and services. It is important to note that individual agency was often utilized in conjunction with utilizing social resources and human capital, exemplified by the use of resources by a motivated person to follow-through or sustain the employment. Sex offenders were more likely to use self-guided job search strategies, non-sex offenders accessed more employment programs and services, and both groups seemed to rely equally on informal social connections while trying to find employment, albeit in somewhat different ways.

Taken as a whole, the findings illustrate the complexities of the job search, particularly in the context of navigating a conviction history, as many participants experienced a number of obstacles including perceived discrimination, long periods of unemployment, and lack of requisite skills or knowledge for available work. The results of the current study substantiate prior studies, and reaffirm how employment continues to be a challenge for formerly incarcerated individuals. Importantly, in understanding how ex-offenders navigate to employment, several important conclusions and policy implications come to light.

First, the redemption-oriented narrative interweaves the importance of offender agency in seeking out employment. In the face of abundant obstacles and challenges, the respondents showed determination to assert their own efforts in finding employment and confidence in their prospects, not unlike prior studies revealed (Hlavka, Wheelock, & Cossyleon, 2015; Ray et al., 2016; Visher et al., 2008). The self-starting behavior and motivation may provide a positive signal to potential employers, by offering insight into a positive attitude conducive to law-abiding behavior and a commitment to a normative lifestyle (Bushway & Apel, 2012; Reich, 2017). The findings suggest employment was valued not only for the sake of satisfying parole requirements or getting money, but also for fulfilling a desire to rejoin conventional society. Prior research notes some ex-offenders show discouragement and eventually self-select out of employment pools (Apel & Sweeten, 2010) or express a passive attitude toward employment searches (Hlavka et al., 2015; Ray et al., 2016). Maruna’s (2001) seminal study of ex-offenders in Liverpool demonstrated chronic offenders disliked their position in life and were tired of offending and being incarcerated, but were also very inactive in attempting to change their own circumstances. Rather, the responses from the current study may reflect a level of intrinsic motivation among ex-offenders indicative of their true desire to desist from crime, which would undoubtedly have positive effects for the interviewees, their loved ones, and the greater community. These types of positive changes can be situated within Maruna’s (2001) rhetoric of redemption, the counterbalancing narrative to condemnation scripts, and provide further evidence for the reinvention narrative identified by Hlavka and colleagues (2015), where perseverance and motivation were key elements for shedding the criminal identity (see also Brown et al., 2007). These redeeming narratives emphasize the ways in which ex-offenders are “making good” (Maruna, 2001, p.7) and disconnecting themselves from past identities centered on criminal activity, transforming themselves into contributing members of society.

This intrinsic motivating behavior was substantiated by the overwhelming preference for face-to-face applications, to better communicate their offense history or demonstrate their determination to find a job, which some research shows to be beneficial in employment outcomes (Pager, Western, & Sugie, 2009). Unfortunately, this pathway may be endangered in a changing employment landscape that offers fewer opportunities for in-person signaling efforts. Kelly and Fader (2012) note companies are rapidly shifting to online applications (see also Vuolo, Lageson, & Uggen, 2017), which may weaken employment outlooks for offending populations. Over and above limitations in what ex-offenders are able to positively signal, it also demands resources such as computer access, time to apply, and a differential skill set that are not included on in-person applications (e.g., personality tests; Kelly and Fader, 2012). The changing applications effectively add steps to the screening process and ease the ability to collect a broader range of information from applicants, which could result in ex-offenders perceiving a greater disadvantage in these types of application processes.

Second, the findings demonstrate access to both social and human capital as critical in accessing employment. These dimensions take on notable importance given the changes in employment processes, which may minimize the effectiveness of self-starting behaviors. Among the most salient themes revealed by ex-offenders in the current sample was the use of social connections. Comporting with prior research, the findings show social capital acts as an anchor for successful reentry, particularly in employment experiences as well as in providing housing, direct financial assistance, and transportation (Chapple, 2006; Ray et al., 2016; Visher et al., 2008; Walker et al., 2014). Those with more stable and comprehensive social networks were able to more effectively navigate through the many challenges of reentry. The findings show social networks adopt various roles during employment searches, including emotional support, as direct employers or in rehiring decisions, and intermediary roles in broad job search patterns, paralleling prior research (Chapple, 2006; Ramakers et al., 2016; Ray et al., 2016). A number of interview participants in this study expressed the need for someone to take a “chance” and act as either an employer or a reference to overcome barriers of stigma, which has also been established in extant literature (Ramakers et al., 2016; Walker et al., 2014). Elliott (2001) suggested that when people are excluded from formal job openings, as many marginalized populations are, increased use of personal contacts emerges in light of that social isolation and insulation. The current study indicates this experience may also be common among ex-offenders, particularly sex offenders. Winters and colleagues (2017) indicate sex offenders likely face greater disruption in their social bonds and face limited access to positive employment experiences; the current findings demonstrate differential reliance on social ties, which may take on greater importance in navigating social exclusions and legal restrictions in employment searches (Brown et al., 2007).

It is also critical to build resources and systems of support beyond social capital, as the results demonstrate not everyone has the same type of access to such networks. Specifically, the findings indicate a deficit of human capital, with prevailing themes of needing better job training and more marketable qualifications. In studying the impact of incarceration on employment, Apel and Sweeten (2010) note the time spent incarcerated not only results  in stigma, but also diminishes the ability to accrue valuable and market able skills. As Kelly and Fader (2012) note, many applications inquire into “hard skills” (such as computer or cash register proficiencies), and the lack of such skills prevents ex-offenders from being viewed as qualified employees (Reich, 2017). While the current findings indicate employment to be relatively accessible, it was often low-skill and unstable work, and many continued searches for something more suitable. Few respondents reported programming or service access to improve employment skills, particularly as they would be applicable in the real world and lead to more lucrative employment efforts. Inadequate efforts to rebuild human capital may cause employment deficits to continue to grow over time (Apel & Sweeten, 2010); rather providing opportunities for individuals with felony convictions to develop the necessary human capital to be competitive in the current labor market is critical to empower them in obtaining gainful employment (Brown et al., 2007; Cook, Kang, Braga, Ludwig, & O’Brien, 2015; Reich, 2017). This becomes particularly important given the heavy reliance on temporary employment agencies that the current findings document. A greater focus on building human capital may also help transform temporary placement into more permanent employment, an experience many who utilized this pathway failed to achieve.

Finally, employment must be recognized as a reciprocal process, much like overall redemption (Maruna, 2001). The findings demonstrate the relative instability of employment as well as the perceived unwillingness of employers to allow ex-offenders into some job markets. Simply expecting self-motivating behaviors (e.g., agency) or providing individuals the tools (e.g., social capital) they need to gain appropriate skills and training for gainful employment (e.g., human capital) will not sufficiently mitigate the stigma  of a criminal conviction (Pager, 2003; Pager,  Western, & Sugie, 2009). Not  all employers are willing or able to hire (or rehire) those with a criminal record (Ramakers et al., 2016; Reich, 2017), particularly in cases of those convicted of a sex offense (Brown et al., 2007). As Reich (2017) demonstrates, employers must also participate with an openness to hiring individuals with criminal records, hopefully for stable jobs that allow ex-offenders to become self-sufficient. Thus, an immediate necessity is identifying which employers may fit such criteria. Although Walker and colleagues (2014) concluded limited benefit from agentic help, the current findings illustrated the usefulness of “felon friendly” employment avenues provided through parole officers or community agencies. Identification of such places will collectively benefit returning offenders, particularly sex offenders, who face enhanced stigmatic barriers and less familiarity with labor markets given residential displacement (Brown et al., 2007).

While important to consider, this and other findings are limited in a few ways. First, as with all social science research that involves subject-researcher interaction, the current study is potentially influenced by social desirability. Social desirability reflects the tendency of research participants to provide responses that they perceive as socially acceptable, while distancing themselves from responses they believe will be viewed unfavorably (Nederhof, 1985). This type of bias is especially prevalent in data collection that includes controversial topics or asks people to divulge sensitive details. In the current research, social desirability bias may be of greater concern than in some other studies due to the fact that many participants had already faced a degree of discrimination and stigma related to the topics covered in the interviews. Thus, it is possible that participants were more mindful of how interviewers might perceive them and may have responded according to this acute awareness. Some participants may have overstated their own involvement in job seeking in an attempt to appear more motivated or interested in being active in conventional society, or may have minimized the roles of others in their job searches to avoid being seen as dependent or unable to fend for themselves. Further, the sampling procedure encompasses those who are abiding by terms of their supervision by maintaining meetings and other conditions such as employment searching, perhaps producing a more highly motivated sample. However, despite these concerns, the current methodology revealed numerous insights that would not have been exposed through remotely administered surveys without researcher-participant contact. Therefore, although a degree of caution is warranted, the overall benefit of using semi-structured interviews for the current study outweighs the potential for social desirability bias in ex-offender responses.

An additional limitation is the bounded geographical region from which participants were drawn. The sample for this study is not nationally representative, and their expressed experiences may not be indicative of those in other parts of the United States or abroad. For example, in areas with fewer job programs or services, offenders will presumably rely on self-starting or social networks. Future research may wish to capitalize on a more generalizable sampling pool or do comparative studies with additional locations. Relatedly, future studies would be prudent to consider gendered and racial effects on job seeking strategies and barrier navigation. It is likely that formerly incarcerated females have markedly different experiences upon release than their male counterparts (see Cobbina, 2010; Richie, 2001), and subsequently have different employment experiences. Similarly, research has previously documented racial differences in the employment market (Pager 2003; Pager et al., 2009; Vuolo et al., 2017). The current findings indicated a preference for seeking out employment in person, an effective strategy substantiated by prior research (Pager et al., 2009). Examining these effects by race and offense type (particularly with regard to sex offender stigma) is a worthy avenue of future research.

Despite limitations, several specific policy recommendations emerge in light of the findings. Given the reliance on self-determining strategies, better instruction on how to navigate the job market, including the stigma of a conviction seems important. Past criminal behavior remains a popular inquiry on job applications (Kelly & Fader, 2012; Pager, 2003; Vuolo et al., 2017) and effective ways to explain the felon status and communicate positive change is critical for employment success (Reich, 2017). The current sample similarly expressed a desire for more specific direction on how to navigate the employment process, particularly in terms of felon disclosure. Relatedly, “ban the box” legislation continues to grow in moderate popularity, allowing for better initial access to employment. Despite some cautions in discriminatory processes these bans can cause (see Sugie, 2017), minimizing the breadth of criminal history disclosure will benefit reentry processes. Limiting disclosure to a certain time period or restricting questions to offenses that relate to employment qualifications or performance both maintain employer rights as well as open the door for job-seeking ex-offenders (Agan, 2017). Further, continuing to develop resources to point ex-offenders in positive directions, such as maintaining lists of “felon friendly” workplaces, would aid the efficiency of an employment search and likely keep motivation for finding employment at higher levels. This would involve the supervising officer more closely in the employment process and be a universal resource for the returning offender. Although these were identified, they were inconsistently available and not a prominent provision by caseworkers. For those in both immediate and long-term search patterns, these resources are highly valuable, and supervising officers could make these more accessible.

Second, programs and reentry initiatives with a focus on employability could allow ex-offenders to learn interview strategies, job skills, or a trade, which in turn increases the likelihood they will secure a position in the workforce. Many respondents lamented the lack of programming available to build skills that would benefit employment outcomes while those few with the opportunities praised their experiences. The broader literature demonstrates the success of such programming efforts both in prison (Chang & Thompkins, 2002; Hopper, 2013) and as an important part of reentry preparation (Duwe, 2012). In particular, continuity of services that begins in prison and extends to the community to offer comprehensive skills are promising in boosting employment outcomes (Cook et al., 2015; Duwe, 2012; Travis et al., 2001).

Finally, as Granovetter (1973; 1985) established, having ties with acquaintances as well as close friends and family members can provide rich opportunities for job searches. Felon-friendly community meetings or mentorship programs would provide an avenue for ex-offenders to meet other community members who may have access to social networks with which they are not yet familiar themselves. The current findings also indicate connecting to ex-felon peers may be productive. Prior research shows peer mentorship between ex-offenders to be valuable in expressing shared struggles and successes (Pleggenkuhle, Huebner, & Kras, 2016). Bolstering these positive relationships, with more official guidance, may have some added employment benefits. Finding ways to connect to social networks is critical, as the current participants noted the importance of such relationships. Though some offenders may elect to eschew these potential intermediaries because of fierce self-reliance (akin to Ray et al., 2016), having social connections to fall back on is a proven strategy for many ex-offenders.

Ultimately, the current study highlights the need for continued and increased attention to reentering offenders and their goals and needs, particularly job-seeking. Securing gainful employment is and will continue to be a challenge for those with criminal convictions in an increasingly competitive job market. By developing and evaluating effective programs that seek to connect formerly incarcerated individuals with employment and the social and human capital required for success in the labor market and workforce, both scholars and practitioners can improve the climate for ex-offenders and community members alike.


Appendix A. Employment relevant questions and probes

Since your release, have you been employed?

How many jobs?

After release from prison, how long did it take to find a job?

Did you have any help in finding this job?

Have you experienced discrimination or stigma as part of the employment process?

Have potential employers expressed negative view toward ex-offenders?

What are you currently doing to locate a job?

Why do you think finding a job has been hard?

Did you participate in any job programming while in prison?

Can you please describe? Was this helpful?


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This work was supported by the National Institute of Justice under Grant [2008-DDBX-0002]. The opinions and conclusions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the Department of Justice.

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