Ex-Convict Goes Job Hunting: The Hardest Career Turnaround

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Ex-convict William CorbinWhen William Corbin's girlfriend told him that she was pregnant, he did what he thought was called for: He dropped out of high school to devote himself to drug dealing. He was 15 years old. "I [had to] step up to the plate," the 30-year-old Mt. Vernon, N.Y., native (pictured at right) says. "I needed money."

By the time he was 23, he had three children and had served a 4½-year term in jail for drug possession, and was essentially unhirable. (He became a father for the fourth time when he was 28.) Some 13 million Americans spend time in prison or jail each year, and the majority struggle to find jobs when they get out, as they often have few marketable skills. While it's illegal to discriminate against applicants on the basis of their criminal records, employers still may do so; one study found that a job applicant with a conviction was nearly 50 percent less likely to be called back or receive a job offer, NPR reports.

More: How Convicts Get Jobs Without Lying

Corbin, however, managed to beat the odds and turn his life around. Most recently, he put in a two-year stint working as a material handler at WeRecycle, a Mount Vernon, N.Y.-based organization that converts electronic waste into usable material. "This couldn't be more different than selling crack cocaine," he says. "I am actually helping people." How he turned around his life provides lessons for many other job hunters who are struggling to overcome the stigma of a conviction and launch a new career.

How His Drug Dealing Began

Growing up in Mt. Vernon, Corbin says that he was surrounded by drug dealing. "I had been seeing kids doing that on the street after school for as long as I could remember," he says. At age of 15, he was dealing crack cocaine and the father of three children, all of whom had different mothers. Brief stints in the Westchester County Jail turned into a 4½-year prison term for drug possession in 2003. "You would think I would have learned my lesson, but it was addictive doing things on my own," he says.

Corbin finally reached bottom in prison. "Being in the 'hole,' [solitary confinement] for the entire summer of 2004 is what did it for me," he says, adding that his grandmother and father both died while he was in solitary confinement.

An Ex-Con With No Skills Has 'No Chance'

So when he was released in 2007, he vowed to take a new path. But what are the prospects for a 23-year-old high school dropout with children to support and a lengthy history of drug convictions? The only work he could get was stocking a freezer in a local delicatessen. "Job searching on your own -- you basically have no chance," he says.

%VIRTUAL-hiringNow-topCity% Corbin contacted the local social services agency, which, in turned, referred him to Westhab Inc., a nonprofit organization that helps low-income families and ex-convicts find employment and affordable living. The organization initially set Corbin up cleaning parks and working as a flagger for Con Edison. But when the power company stopped paying for gasoline for their flaggers in 2011, he knew that he would need a different full-time job to support his family, he says.

Getting Trained For A New Career

On the advice of his counselor, Michael Stevens, an assistant director at Westhab, Corbin attended local job fairs in Westchester and joined WeRecycle, which requires its handlers have expertise with electronic waste. For most workers, monthlong training is needed to master the disassembling, but he says that he learned the work in two weeks.

According to NPR, about 1 in 5 Americans has some kind of criminal record. Within three years of release, 67 percent of former prisoners are rearrested and 52 percent are re-incarcerated. But Corbin dove into the fledgling green industry, which proved personally satisfying, he says.

He says that he now goes into interviews prepared to address his past. "I was young, and I made my mistakes in trying to support my family," he says that he tells prospective employers. "I didn't look at how it might affect me. But the experience has made me a better man."

In 2011, Corbin was hired by WeRecycle, which works in cooperation with the county government. He came in at a salary of $13.50 an hour, working 8-hour days, as a material handler disassembling a range of products including cars and computers at a plant in Mount Vernon, NY. The material is then repurposed, and sold to companies for new production.

More: 10 Things You Should Never Say In A Job Interview


His work ethic immediately made him stand out at Westhab. "A lot of former convicts just come through here, and prefer to be done with the process," after one review of a resume, says Dean Simms, a career counselor at Westhab. "William was a perfectionist. He just goes over everything, like his resume, time and again."

Recently, Corbin resigned from his job at WeRecyle after the organization needed him to move to working evening shift, something he said he can't do because of his parenting responsibilities. So he has returned to Westhab. Stevens says it's just a "matter of time" before Corbin "bounces back" and lands a new job. Corbin says he is open to any job, "where I can grow."

Even now that he's jobless again, Corbin says he's never tempted to return to the big money life of his drug dealing days. "It's not worth it, and not just because my kids are getting bigger," he says. "I think about all the people I would be letting down. My freedom has just become more important than anything. Dealing is really a selfish life."

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