Guide to Trade Careers for Formerly Incarcerated People

Every year, around 600,000 people are released from prisons and jails, and many are looking to rejoin the workforce. What could improve their chances of getting hired? A U.S. Department of Justice report found those who took advantage of vocational programs while incarcerated had a 28% better chance of getting work over those who didn’t.

One area of work that’s particularly appealing to former inmates is the trades, partly because these jobs are in such high demand. In areas like manufacturing, an aging workforce is causing many retirees to leave open positions that are harder and harder to fill.

So how can formerly incarcerated workers get a foot into the door of these employment opportunities? The first step is to be aware of the programs and resources available.

Here are the key facts to know about how to rejoin the job market and earn a living through skilled labor. 

Why You Should Pursue a Career in the Trades

While not all trade careers are growing at a faster pace than other jobs, many of them are. These jobs also tend to be friendly to those who didn’t take a traditional career path like going straight from high school to college. In fact, many trades welcome older workers and those who are willing to learn on the job -- which are two common characteristics of those who have been formerly incarcerated. 

Reentering Your Community

There are many factors to consider when returning to your community after incarceration, and employment is one of the first things people consider. It's essential for earning a living but may also be part of the parole agreement or probation requirements set as part of their release. Fortunately, many outstanding organizations and some government programs have recognized the challenges of this population and stepped up to help. These efforts include both local and federal programs, as well as those administered by community groups. 

Reentry Assistance Programs

There can be many hurdles involved with reentering the workforce, but there are local, state, and federal programs available to help. One resource is the Career One Stop website, which lists organizations and community groups by state to help job seekers find the right opportunity for their unique needs. 

The Fair Shake reentry resource program also lists many places to find help with employment, as well as organizations that assist with food, health insurance, medical care, and mental health support. Bilingual resources are available, as well. 

Federal Programs

The federal government has been making efforts to create an even playing field for those with criminal records. The following employment programs give employers an incentive to hire formerly incarcerated individuals by giving them tax credits, training, and access to resources. These initiatives help remove the stigma that surrounds hiring former inmates, and may make it easier for this population to get and keep gainful, meaningful employment. 

  • Work Opportunity for Tax Credits (WOTC) – Employers who participate in this program and hire a felon or other convicted adult will get a tax credit. 
  • Fair Chance Pledge – Companies who take the Fair Chance Pledge are considered “Fair Chance Employers” who make it easier to hire and retain those with criminal histories. They may provide job training to these employees or refrain from asking about criminal backgrounds until later in the job interview process. 
  • Federal Bonding Program – Since employers may perceive hiring formerly incarcerated adults as a big risk, the federal government offers a 6-month bond for free to the business. The bond will help cover any damages from criminal acts the newly-hired employee may incur, so it can make the employer feel better about taking this initial risk. 

Trade Schools and Programs

A trade school is any post-secondary (after high school) institution that offers training and skills-based education with the goal of learning a trade. It is often called a vocational school or technical school. Attending a trade school doesn’t mean you will get a job, and there may be additional requirements to work in some trades. An electrician, for example, often needs trade school experience or an apprenticeship along with a state license.

Trade programs can vary by institution with some offering more robust learning opportunities than others. Do your research to see if the trade school you are considering prepares students to excel in the real world, or if additional training needs to happen after class has ended. 

There may also be a trend toward state-based trade programs such as Vocational Village, an effort by the Michigan Department of Corrections to train inmates in vocational programs such as tree trimming, automotive technology, and masonry. Participants get training while still incarcerated, giving them a head start on the career they may pursue when they are released. 

Because most trade schools offer courses in the top trades, they are a popular destination for formerly incarcerated adults who want to start a new career in a skilled area. Whether you choose plumbing, electrical, or construction, a trade school may be one way to achieve that goal. 

Essential Tasks to Do Before Pursuing a Trade Career

If you do get a job right out of prison, it may not be something that is considered a career. To pursue a long-term employment opportunity with room to grow, you’ll want to get additional training and qualifications. Depending on the trade or job description, these tasks are generally recommended.

Get Your High School Equivalency (HSE)

If you didn’t finish high school, an HSE test should be your first goal. GED programs are just one version. Your state may have another option available. HSE training and tests are sometimes offered while still incarcerated, so if you can take advantage of this option, do it. Studies show that 73% of the formerly incarcerated people who have a GED earned it while still incarcerated. 

Check your state to see what recognized exams are in the area, along with the cost and test dates. 

Earn a Trade Certificate

Not all jobs require degrees, but some are more likely to hire if you have a certificate demonstrating your ability to demonstrate certain skills. Certificates can be earned in as little as a few weeks, but some require much more time and energy. How much you will need to dedicate depends on the industry and the certificate earned. 

Trade Skills Training

Even after earning a certificate, you may find that you need to polish your communication, writing, or tech skills. Using a computer after a long time in jail, for example, may be overwhelming, and a free or low-cost computer training course or workshop can help bridge the gap. This is just one example of the skills training opportunities out there, but the ones you pursue will depend on your goals and the job you are looking to find. 

College Degree in the Trades

Despite some restrictions on who can receive Pell Grants and Federal Student loans, it’s still possible to get some form of higher education through college coursework. Pursuing a college degree may be the best way forward to get a job in highly-skilled and technical industries, such as electrical, mechanics, or HVAC repair. Not all college degrees are 4-year degrees, and don’t discount that 2-year Associate degrees serve many of the trade industries today, and give an adequate introduction to the trade jobs. 

Trade Apprenticeships

Whether in conjunction with a certificate or degree, an apprenticeship offers hands-on training with a skilled professional who can demonstrate the ins and outs of a particular trade. Often, apprenticeships are required for the trades, and the person leading the apprenticeship serves as both instructor and on-site supervisor. For trade jobs where an apprenticeship is required, you can often find these opportunities through career resource centers; some colleges and trade schools incorporate the apprenticeship portion of the training into the course curriculum. 

The government has an apprenticeship website with more information on how to find these programs. 

Occupational License

After training in the career of your choice, your state may require an occupational license. Typically, an exam is given to see that you have the skills and knowledge to hold the license, and the license may be renewable after a few years to keep the job. Licensing varies by state and may be specific to the industry you hold (like an electrical license) or a skill associated with that job (such as a commercial drivers license). 

Trade Careers to Consider

There are many trade jobs to pursue today, and the choice depends on your interests as much as your abilities. Here are some of the trade careers for formerly incarcerated people with the best outlook.

Welding and Fabrication

If you have an interest in welding, cutting, brazing, or fabricating, you may be a good fit for this industry, which is projected to grow 8% over the next decade. A high school diploma (or equivalent), as well as on-the-job training are all that’s needed. Those with more rigorous training can earn the higher end of the pay scale, which averages $22.60 an hour (or $47,010 annually).


Heating, air conditioning, and refrigeration mechanics and installers can make a good living with  postsecondary education (usually a certificate or AA) degree, as well as an apprenticeship, and in some cases, a state license. HVAC professional jobs are expected to grow 5% over the next 10 years, and the pay averages $23.38 per hour, or $48,630 per year. 


From hanging sheetrock to running a crew, there is a wide range of responsibilities and pay ranges in the construction industry. Construction is largely an on-the-job learning opportunity although some of the more skilled jobs may require postsecondary education. Expect to earn $23.20 an hour for a carpenter position up to $47.55 an hour for a construction manager


Electricians get their start by learning through an apprenticeship or with postsecondary coursework. No matter the path, however, most states require them to get licensed before they begin work. After licensure, expect to earn $28.87 per hour ($60,040 per year) with an expected job growth outlook of 9% over the next decade. Of the 84,700 openings that will occur annually, many of those will be due to the retirement of experienced electricians. 


Another popular trade area that is expected to grow over the next decade is plumbing -- with a 5% growth outlook for this career that requires some training and state licensure. Plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters can earn around $28.79 per hour (or $59,880 per year), making it a good living for those who invest the time to learn and sharpen their skills through an apprenticeship. 

Wind Turbine Technician

If you have no fear of heights and a mechanical aptitude, you could be a good fit for one of the fastest-growing trade jobs today. Tower and wind turbine technicians earn up to $56,260 per year ($27.05 per hour) after getting a postsecondary education and on-the-job training. Demand for this new job is expected to grow 68% over the next decade, although training programs are just starting up and may not be available everywhere yet. 

More Resources on Trade Careers for Formerly Incarcerated People

Formal training and education are one way to get the skills and support to reach your next career goal. Other ways forward include the following options.


A mentoring relationship can be what you need to overcome reentry hurdles. Statistics show that those who receive mentoring found work faster than those who didn’t and were also 35% less likely to reoffend. Mentor programs are often run by nonprofit or community groups where mentors are paired with mentees recently released from prison. They can talk one-on-one about challenges faced in the world, especially when finding work. This support system has proven vital to many formerly incarcerated adults who need someone to talk with for advice on how to pursue their new career goals. 

State-Based Programs

When searching for jobs and apprenticeships, the best tools may come from your own backyard. The following sites offer mentoring, services, and support for those in select states:

A quick search with the terms “workforce development” and “prisoner reentry” (along with the name of your state) will bring up any resources offered by the state Department of Labor and Employment Offices.

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