With a Focus on Skills, Career Coaches Play a Pivotal Role in Helping Formerly Incarcerated Find Jobs

When Brian’s* 33-year prison sentence was over, he didn’t know how he was going to support himself. For the formerly incarcerated, finding housing and a job can be nearly impossible. Returning to his home town of Grand Junction, Colorado, he sat down and thought about his next steps.


Brian, who was sentenced at the age of 24, didn’t know how to use a computer. He was worried that his lack of digital literacy due to his time in prison would eliminate him from any position.


When Brian was introduced to Michael Smith, an employment specialist at Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, Colorado, he felt discouraged about his prospects. But Michael, a participant in the Skillful Governor’s Coaching Corps, was intent on helping Brian realize that he had transferable skills that many employers would value.


Michael Smith, an employment specialist at Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, Colorado
Michael Smith, employment specialist at Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, Colorado


In prison, Brian had run the kitchen and worked as a gardener. He also mentioned that, before prison, he had worked at a Denny’s. Michael helped Brian understand that skills were skills no matter where they were acquired and that he had a lot to offer.


Brian, encouraged by Michael’s support, walked into a Denny’s and asked for an application. When he was told to apply online, he returned to Michael for guidance through the system.


In a note to Michael, Brian wrote, “Out of all the people who assisted me in finding work, you were the only one who really took the time to try and help me. You’re an inspiration for all.”


Michael’s unique, skills-based approach helped him serve another formerly incarcerated client. Dirk*, who had served years in prison, left the Department of Corrections with no safety net and ended up homeless.


“I’ve worked with the justice-involved and when I saw Dirk, I got chills,” said Michael. “He is a relatively small guy, and in order to survive in prison for that long, he had to be strong.”


Noting Dirk’s strengths, Michael dug into the skills he had acquired in prison. Dirk had worked as a custodian, as well as in landscaping and irrigation. Michael helped Dirk realize that, even though he had had no work history prior to prison, he had learned useful skills while he was serving his sentence. He ended up getting a job at a local restaurant, which opens the door to more employment opportunities down the road.


“The Skillful Governor’s Coaching Corps has taught me that a focus on skills can help people with both traditional and untraditional employment backgrounds highlight what they can bring to the table,” said Michael. “The program also introduced me to tools that can help career coaches and their clients home in on what skills job seekers have. I’ve found SkillsEngine especially useful. You can copy and paste a resume or a job description and it will give you a job profile. Both career coaches and job seekers can benefit.”


Michael credits the Skillful Governor’s Coaching Corps with helping him gain skills and knowledge to better serve his clients. “I’m thankful for the opportunity to add to my toolbox,” said Michael. “I’ve told my colleagues that they should jump on the opportunity to participate.”


*Names changed to preserve anonymity.