Job Services for Those Who Need Them Most: What Works?
By David J. Wright
Director, Urban and Metropolitan Studies
Slow economic growth and continually high levels of unemployment have burdened programs that help job seekers adapt their skills to the demands of a knowledge-based, globalizing economy. And the possibility of tighter limits on federal spending growth increases the urgency of learning what works in employment services for low-income individuals. Fortunately, there is evidence of success in helping some of the hardest-to-serve clients find jobs.
Some of the most successful employment-related service programs for low-income clients are in communities where programs that provide job training through the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) are closely coordinated with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cash support program.
Such collaboration is not mandated. Beginning in the late 1990s, wholesale reforms in the nation’s workforce development and public assistance programs greatly increased areas of overlap in their purposes, services and participants. Employment-related programs were consolidated by WIA into a unified system, establishing a sequence of job-finding, placement and training services through One-Stop Career Centers. Although these services were available to everyone, public assistance recipients or other low-income citizens had priority for job training. Yet interaction between workforce development and public assistance agencies was left to state and local discretion.
To shed light on the character of WIA services for the poor, and with research support from the U.S. Employment and Training Administration, the Rockefeller Institute examined One-Stop Career Centers in California, Georgia and Missouri — purposefully concentrating on areas with higher-than-average rates of unemployment, poverty and low educational attainment. We identified Career Centers that attained successful records while serving a disproportionately high level of people eligible for public assistance.
The Career Centers were able to achieve what they did in a challenging environment. We found, for example, that differences in the mission and culture of the social service/welfare agencies and the workforce agencies often outweighed similarities, and disharmony was at or near the surface of their interactions. Workforce agency staff would perceive welfare agency staff as sometimes protective of clients to the point of making them dependent on social service programs. Welfare agency staff, meanwhile, would report trepidation at sending their clients through a workforce system unprepared to address their needs and barriers. And members of the boards overseeing local workforce programs expressed considerable ambivalence: awareness that training services ought to be targeted to those most in need, but also the view that barriers for that population were too great, personal commitments too shallow, and that thin resources ought to be devoted where they could do more good, especially when WIA performance standards provided every incentive to do so.
But the goal of the centers is to provide universal services for anyone who needs employment assistance. They tend to serve low-income clients not only because that is a stated priority, but also because many low-income clients live in their service areas.
We found that these successful Career Centers shared the following characteristics:
State encouragement was helpful in building local collaboration. The state workforce agencies permitted a high degree of flexibility in the development and implementation of policies and procedures to the local/county agencies, workforce boards, and One-Stop Career Centers. The One-Stop Career Centers and public assistance programs in the study sites operate at the local level, which made it easier for them to build relationships among the associated agencies locally. In Modesto, for example, the One-Stop Career Center operator (Alliance WorkNet) and the public assistance agency (Community Services Agency) operate Job Clubs for clients together. In California, the state agencies allow the counties the ability to integrate the WIA and public assistance databases. In Georgia, the Department of Labor encouraged coordination by having staff of the public assistance agency co-located at Career Centers.
Successful Career Centers used effective, community-based contractors to provide effective services. Missouri officials regarded their most important lesson to be the benefit of contracting with well-established community-based organizations to provide services onsite at the One-Stop Career Centers. They use organizations closely tied to the community and well-tuned to local job market trends, able to provide services and training accordingly as well as provide intensive client attention.
Targeting entry-level jobs in growing fields of employment is key. The successful One-Stop Career Centers identified areas of employment appropriate for entry-level jobs needed in their respective regions. The Sacramento Employment and Training Agency and WIA Board members conduct outreach to businesses to find out what types of employees they need and adjust the training they offer accordingly, giving their clients an advantage over other applicants because they are trained for jobs that are known to be available.
With all the potential barriers, board vision and buy-in is crucial internally and externally. Close observers in Columbus believe their success is due to the tenure of the board members and the Career Center staff, a focus on shared resources, and inclusion of service providers and private sector stakeholders on the workforce board. The director of the Macon Office of Workforce Development stressed the importance of partnering with other public and private entities in order to leverage resources and stretch dollars. Agency relationships with local businesses and schools are crucial in ensuring employment-related services are relevant to the local job market.
Shared location and linked technology can aid service coordination. In California, the state allows counties the flexibility to link their own workforce and social service information technology systems if they wish, as they do in Sacramento. Most of the successful One-Stop Career Centers in the study have public assistance agency staff members co-located onsite. Georgia Department of Labor officials report this was instrumental to their ability to get clients employed. Other Career Centers in the study have electronic referral systems to track clients and the services they are receiving, as they do in Missouri.
These techniques and practices have provided valuable ammunition to workforce agencies, in attempting to surmount an economic downturn that has made it even more difficult for low-income, low-skill individuals to obtain employment. In this economic climate, when workforce programs must draw on every tool with the potential to improve clients’ chances at securing employment, they may be worth replicating.