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Grit and gumption

A criminal record wouldn't hold back Harley Blakeman

Harley Blakeman seems like a typical collegiate success story: He graduated from Ohio State with a degree in operations management, and now works in management for Owens Corning in Newark, Ohio.

But behind that is a startling back story: As a teenager, he was a homeless drug user and dealer, who dropped out of school and was jailed on felony charges.

He was 14 when his mother left, dealing with drug addiction. Soon after, his father was killed in a motorcycle crash. Blakeman started sleeping on friends’ couches and falling into depression and poverty. Blakeman turned to profiting off of drugs, selling pills from Florida to Georgia — until he was arrested.

Sentenced to 14 months in prison, 400 hours of community service and restitution requirements, Blakeman also had a lifelong stain on his record that would make it difficult to turn his life around.

Upon his release, an aunt in Ohio offered him a place to live and the discipline he previously lacked. She helped him get a job washing dishes at a restaurant. He worked 60 hours a week and had to do chores around the house to boot. Blakeman earned enough to get his own place and a car before deciding to go to college.

“I figured: I’ll study business because I’m probably going to have to be an entrepreneur; no one’s ever going to hire me,” Blakeman said.

He graduated from the Fisher College of Business with honors in 2017 and learned how to field questions from wary interviewers. He’s turned those experiences into a book, Grit: How to Get a Job and Build a Career With a Criminal Record and is launching a consulting business, BackgroundMeNot.com.

Harley Blakeman, Grit, The Ohio State University
What would you say are some of the key lessons from your book?

I’d say first and foremost is, look around at your environment. Your environment absolutely affects who you are and what you become. Evaluate your environment, and be realistic about it. Get away from the things that are negatively impacting your life.

And then I have a very high value for education — traditional and nontraditional. Your skills and knowledge [are] the only values you have to offer the marketplace.

As far as people with a bachelor’s degree, or somebody who has been out for a couple years, you just really have to think about your career, and look at your resume and say, “What jobs am I qualified for?” and be realistic about what you’re qualified to do. You can’t just expect really good jobs to come your way that you’re not qualified for, so no matter where you’re at in your life, education is always valuable.

What are some of the biggest barriers for people with criminal records?

The odds are stacked against you. You’re in a market that’s against you, from housing to jobs.

When you first get out, one of the main barriers is going to be housing. Just be aware of it, and plan. Don’t tell someone that you need a place to stay for a week; make sure you have somewhere to stay for two, three months if you can, because it’s going to take some time to find a house.

And secondly, it’s really hard to get into the job market with a felony, especially if you have a gap on your resume. Don’t set your sights on a job that pays 15 bucks an hour right out of prison. You’re trying to make a comeback, and you’ve got to start from scratch.

You’ve got to be willing to be vulnerable. In the [job] interview, you’ve got to be willing to tell your story to someone who’s going to potentially turn around and tell you that they’re not going to hire you because of what you’ve just told them. And that’s really tough.

The way that you tell someone that you have a criminal record can cause them to not want to hire you, and you have to really plan and execute the way that you tell them about this. You’re going to catch them off guard with information that’s going to make them judge you in a certain way, so you’ve got to present the information in a way that actually makes them value you.

Why did you write the book and launch your consulting business?

I knew that there wasn’t a great resource out there for people. When I go into prisons and talk to people, I can see that there’s hope; they’re happy, and they’re excited to talk to me. My paycheck at work does not inspire me or get me excited the way that talking to some people in prison does. It still gets me fired up.