Mock interviews help formerly incarcerated people find jobs

Several company representatives and job hunters gathered in a room for interviews near downtown Davenport on Monday, Aug. 15.

At first glance, it appeared to be a fairly typical job fair. The job hunters went from table to table and faced some standard questions from employers: “What separates you from other candidates? Where do you see yourself in five years? Are you working now?”

mock interviews
Area company leaders conduct mock interviews at the Seventh Judicial District – Department of Correctional Services building in Davenport on Monday, Aug. 15. CREDIT DAVE THOMPSON

But there was nothing typical about this event. That was evident when one of the job hunters prepared for an interview and said: “I messed up. But I’m trying to turn my wrongs into rights.”

DeAndre Hendricks of Chicago added that he was recently incarcerated in the region and was at Monday’s event hoping to get some tips on giving a good first impression to interviewers and eventually landing a good job.

About 40 formerly incarcerated men and women also were looking for job-hunting advice and jobs during the mock interview session at the Seventh Judicial District – Department of Correctional Services building at 605 Main St. The event was part of IowaWORKS’ Returning Citizens Initiative that helps formerly incarcerated people develop the skills needed to return to the workforce.

“The goal is to give people the tools they need to get jobs,” said Lulu Torres, a career planner at IowaWORKS and an organizer of the mock interviews.

She added that even in today’s economic environment where many companies are looking for workers, “it’s still a struggle” to get some employers to take a chance on hiring people with criminal records.

That’s why IowaWORKS holds such events to help people, she added. In addition to getting feedback on their interview skills on Monday, participants each received a folder filled with interviewing and job-hunting advice. Some of those tips included: Dress appropriately, research the company, smile, and leave your troubles, anxiety and self-pity at home when interviewing for a job. 

Another packet of job-hunting tips offered the advice: “Job interviews are like first dates. Good impressions count.” That packet advises job-hunters to never say bad things about a former employer. “Bad mouthing others always reflects poorly on you and makes you appear unprofessional,” according to one tip provided.

“The transition (from jail to society and employment) can be challenging,” said Waylyn McCulloh, district director of the Seventh Judicial District – Department of Correctional Services. “Some employers are not willing to take a chance on you. You have to show them your skills.”

Mr. McCulloh added that events like Monday’s mock interviews will help people develop needed skills such as communications skills, proper posture, eye contact and the ability to market yourself. He also hopes the job-seekers will learn another vital skill – the ability to take criticism from a  workplace supervisor and learn from the criticism. That’s a skill some people never learned during their time behind bars, he added

“You can’t get all pumped up and get in a person’s face (when criticized),” Mr. McCulloh said.

The district director added that he is more optimistic about people finding jobs in the current employment environment as more companies appear to be willing to hire people with criminal records. (Just a few years ago, a study stated that 70% of formerly incarcerated people were still unemployed one year after leaving prison, he said.)

Some of the companies and groups represented at the event included: HNI Corp., Goodwill of the Heartland, Safer Foundation, Team Staffing, The Outing Club and Quad Cities Chamber of Commerce. Several of the interviewers said they liked what they saw and heard during the mock interviews.

“It’s been good. Many people have come prepared. There’s been good eye contact and other skills,” said Emily Codling, talent manager at the Quad Cities Chamber.

Others added they were pleased with the number of participants in attendance. They also hope the job hunters take the advice they get to heart because job interviewing is a tough skill to learn.

While watching some of those interviews, Paul Stubbs, an employment specialist with the Seventh Judicial District, said he recalled back to when he graduated from college and went on a job interview. He remembers being incredibly nervous during the interview because he didn’t know what to expect.

Mr. Hendricks added that he hopes that the experience gained will help get rid of nervous feelings and give company reps that vital good first impression. But one of the keys to success, he added, is to ask for help.

“People don’t want to ask for help. But there is help for them,” said Mr. Hendricks.

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