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NMSU Extension 'Foot In The Door' program helps released convicts re-enter the workforce

LOS LUNAS, N.M. - Many barriers stand between an unemployed person and a job, especially when there is a high unemployment rate. An applicant needs to stand out from the crowd when applying for the few open positions.

Woman in black talking with woman in white
Laura Bittner, NMSU Extension home economist in Valencia County, left, helps a client during a "Foot In The Door" job-seeking class. Bittner teaches the class to convicted felons who are re-entering the workforce after completing a rehabilitation program at one of the Recover Academy's two Valencia County locations. (NMSU photo by Jane Moorman)

Laura Bittner, New Mexico State University Extension home economist in Valencia County, has developed "Foot In The Door" a job-seeking program that provides a basic understanding of the steps involved in targeting and acquiring a job.

The program is designed for convicted felons, who are re-entering the workforce after completing a rehabilitation program through the Recovery Academy two locations in Valencia County.

"The ex-offender faces many challenges when they are released from incarceration including returning to the workforce," Bittner said. "The purpose of this program is to give participants an opportunity to gather information and skills that will make acquiring a job as simple as possible. Our goal is to improve their employability and ultimately reduce recidivism of ex-offenders."
Bittner has also modified the class and taught it to high school students preparing for their first job, and at an after-school program for at-risk intermediate and middle school students.

"All of the work I do through the Cooperative Extension Service is rewarding," said Bittner, who has been with NMSU since April 2009. "The programs don't just end with the last class; I encourage the students to stay in touch."

After reading an email from a former Women's Recovery Academy student that tells Bittner the ex-offender has been promoted to manager at her job, Bittner said, "This makes me so happy. I love the confidence and enthusiasm in her words. This is why I love this program so much, and actually why I love all the programs I am able to present as part of my job."

The former student's email thanked Bittner for "all of your time, energy and knowledge that you have shared with all of us women. So many have given up on us, but you stand by each one of us and prepared us for a brighter future. Keep doing what you do, because it works. I am living proof. I can never put into words how much I appreciate you."

During the once a month, eight hour class at both Valencia County locations of the academy, the participants evaluate themselves and identify their values, interests and employable skills. They enhance their knowledge regarding successful completion of applications, and the development of cover letters, references and resumes. They also develop self-presentation skills for job interviews.

The curriculum also increases their awareness of agencies and programs that assist in acquiring employment.

With Bittner's help, the participants develop a professional resume and reference page.

"In this day and age, no matter where you are going to apply for work, a resume is required," Bittner said. "One of the first barriers the Recovery Academy class members have is not having computer skills or access to a computer to develop a resume. So as part of the program I design a resume for each of the students and present it to them at the end of the classes. Their resume remains on the computer at the Extension office where they can update it in the future."

Class activities involve gathering the information Bittner needs to design the resume, and helps the participants realize their potential value to future employers.

"Hopefully the self-worth and confidence they realize while taking this class will help them in the future," Bittner said. "We already have several success stories."

The program began two years ago with three female ex-offenders, and as of December 2011, 277 men and women had completed the training. The Recovery Academy residents have been court-ordered to participate in a six-month live-in drug and alcohol rehabilitation program. They take the job-seeking class during the third and fourth months of their stay at the academy.

"The counselors encourage them to take the class prior to going out into the community on work furloughs during the last two months of their time at the academy," Bittner said.

Through class discussion, Bittner helps the class participants to think about the obstacles they will face when looking for a job, and to determine the personal and work values needed to maintain jobs. By completing an interest survey, they identify their employable skills and the types of work that might be a good fit.

The participants complete practice job applications where Bittner gives them guidelines for successful application completion, such as how to organize application facts and how to use power words that will communicate clearer to future employers.

"We discuss their concerns about handling the gaps in employment and education," Bittner said. "During the discussion they realize that while they may not have a formal education or previous paid work experience, they have life skills that are used in the work place."

Another concern that is addressed is how to talk to the future employer about their criminal records.

"We have developed a brief statement as an example of how to approach this part of their personal history," Bittner said. "They really appreciate having this statement to include in their application cover letter."

The summary statement declares that they take responsibility for their action and have paid their debt to society; and, while incarcerated and in a rehabilitation program, they took advantage of various training programs and developed the skills necessary to be successful in the position they are seeking.

The final class focuses on how to participate in a job interview and the psychology involved in first impressions related to professional attire, how to shake hands, and the importance of making eye contact.

"We have practice interview questions which helps them organize their thoughts and learn how to present themselves in a positive way," Bittner said. "We also discuss what is proper for them to ask the interviewer and the importance of sending a brief thank-you note after the interview."