Ex-Cons in a Pandemic Job Market

You wouldn’t think that there’d be much hope for someone in their 40s or 50s with a criminal record, who’s been in jail for a decade or more, of piercing the job market. Prejudices against ex-cons; the blinding flurry of new technologies that long-term prisoners have never seen; these people aren’t hireable in a pandemic, you’d think.

Well, you’d be wrong.

By Colin McGregor

There are employment agencies across the province that specialize in getting just these sorts of people back into circulation in the work force.

Jonathan Boyer is an employability counsellor with the Service d’aide à l’emploi de l’Est (SAEE), on Hochelaga Street in the Tétraultville district of East End Montreal. His job is to give people with criminal records the tools they need to reintegrate back into society.

Many if not most of the clients at the SAEE are men who reside in one of several halfway houses in East End Montreal. These “maisons de transition” accept ex-cons from across and outside the province. Out of his caseload of 20 former federal prisoners, Boyer has only 2 clients under age 35.

“Everyone’s different,” he says.

Some show up with low morale, convinced, he says, that they’ll never find work. “We get them to do an inventory of their skills… We go back 15 years and have them write down everything they’ve done in that time, in jail or out, in terms of jobs, volunteering, under-the-table work. They rediscover themselves. They find out they had skills that didn’t occur to them.”

The SAEE offers seminars on job interviews, on how to use the internet to find employment opportunities, on what jobs are in demand at the present time, on employment strategies that suit your personality… and of course, on making a CV, a step everyone takes.

“There are those who want to find a job, who are motivated from within. Their chances of getting and keeping a job are better than someone who feels forced to find a job.”

For unskilled labor it’s full employment despite the pandemic, says Boyer. Construction sites, factories and warehouses are desperate for workers. “The ageing population, fewer children, less immigration, are all factors,” he reflects.   

As a result, those looking for work in those fields don’t have to wait longer than “one or two days after you’ve sent out your CV. The employer shows up, makes sure you have a head on your shoulders, then whoosh, you’re hired.”

Those seeking semi-skilled labor take about 7 or 8 weeks to land a job.

Indeed, there’s so much opportunity that: “If a job isn’t going well people don’t try too hard to keep their job. They just move on to another one somewhere else,” says Boyer.

It helps that in federal prison you can obtain your “cards,” skills certificates in several fields, including carpentry, forklift truck driving, and road signaling. You can also get your CSST card, the Quebec workplace health and safety commission card required to work on job sites across the province. The SAEE also gives the road signaling course, complete with the exam, at their offices. Often, people learn how to find a job themselves at the SAEE, surfing the web and whatnot, and are never seen back at their offices again.

I took full advantage of the free hot chocolate and coffee offered at the SAEE when I went back to interview Boyer, who had been my employment counsellor. I had been scared I would never find employment, but he showed confidence in me and put me at ease.

This is Boyer’s first job since graduating from the Université de Sherbrooke with a bachelor’s degree in “Orientation.” He could have worked in human resources at a company, but prefers to “directly help people. The simple fact I can help someone get their first paycheck is rewarding,” he says.

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