Twelve former criminals in Cape Breton are learning how to adapt their skills to become legitimate businessmen.

Stephen Tobin, manager of the Phoenix entrepreneurship program in Sydney, said all of the participants are smart and ambitious, and they just need to refocus.

"Chances are they have those inherent skills that a business person would have. They're just using them in the wrong capacity," he told CBC News.

'A lot of criminals are business people' — Colin Somerton, program participant

Eric Aucoin would agree.

Aucoin, from Glace Bay, started taking drugs as a young teenager. He turned to street crime to feed his habit, and eventually ended up on social assistance.

He finds it's difficult to escape his past when all people know about him is his criminal history.

"After you burn so many bridges and tear down so many people's beliefs in you, it's pretty hard to get back the trust and to rebuild those bridges," Aucoin said.

Through the Phoenix program, Aucoin is learning basic career skills, including public speaking, creating a resumé and developing a business plan.

In essence, Aucoin and the other participants — who have all had run-ins with the law — are taking what they learned on the streets and adapting it for a legal enterprise.

"A lot of criminals are business people. They're selling drugs and stuff, and people like that have entrepreneurial skills because it's buying and selling and taking risks, which are a couple of things in business that are important," said Colin Somerton, another participant.

The 12 men in the program are getting work experience through weekly job placements — from cooking to landscaping.

The year-long program is run out of the Cape Breton Business College. The Nova Scotia Department of Community Services and Enterprise Cape Breton Corporation are splitting the $200,000 bill.

Aucoin is eager to complete his transformation.

"From where I was to where I am today, I'm almost two different people," he said.