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Employment is at the core of what we do. It drives all of our other economic and community development efforts because we believe that work is good for individuals, families, and the larger community. The people we serve have real challenges; therefore, it takes time and resources not only to get them ready for work but also to help them stay on the job. These individuals need counseling, education, and training, as well as transportation, child-care services, clothing, stable housing, and help with even basic tasks, such as obtaining identification documents.
In a performance-based contract, there is a lot of uncertainty regarding how much we can earn, but we still need to meet our basic expenses, such as payroll, insurance, rent, and utilities. For a nonprofit, access to capital to carry those costs while trying to meet performance measures is tough. In addition, cash flow from public funding agencies sometimes becomes impeded because of funding cycles and interactions among different levels of government.
Hopefully, the experiences that we face will influence policymakers and help them to understand and support good programs. When people have limited skills and significant barriers, they need a lot of help to get and stay on track, but they can do it. Employers need to give individuals who have been involved in workforce development programs like ours a chance to prove themselves. Since its inception, Impact has hired over 150 individuals who might not have gotten a chance somewhere else, and they have turned out to be loyal and productive employees for Impact and for other employers when they moved on to other jobs.
A funder that requires continuing evaluation, including from participants, encourages us to reflect on the lessons learned and to improve our processes. Foundations and private-sector funders are more evaluation-oriented than public-sector funders.
The Wells Fargo Regional Foundation (WFRF) pushed us to perform at our highest level. The WFRF funded helpful technical assistance and got us standard evaluation tools and outside consultants.
In the current fiscal environment, there’s an emphasis on short-term performance goals and a lack of funding for the comprehensive and long-range services needed by at-risk populations. Funders require that we develop career plans for participants as part of assessment and planning, but our role generally ends once the participant is placed and has met the retention goals. The emphasis on immediate job placement is at odds with the concept of a workforce development path to success that takes a planned approach to education and training.
The primary barrier that many of the participants face in obtaining and keeping a job involves a lack of “soft skills,” such as appropriate behavior, managing stress and conflict, and interpersonal communication. Helping participants understand and develop these behaviors requires intensive services.
Job seekers are differentiated by their assets and their barriers. For participants with extensive personal and family barriers, such as emotional, mental health, or addiction issues, the focus should be on life skills training, counseling, and therapy, and job placement should be postponed if not discounted altogether when the barriers are severe. Each individual needs a different path of services over a different length of time to become job ready.
Over the years, the emotional and mental health problems faced by many low-income individuals seem to have increased. Many participants’ job readiness is compromised by the number of appointments they have with mental health agencies, issues that their children are experiencing, and the lack of support from day-care centers that no longer care for children who are ill or who have behavioral difficulties. Day-care and school concerns have become the most formidable barriers that participating parents face in finding employment because of the continual demand that these issues place on their time.
The workforce system does not currently have the capacity to track participant involvement through multiple programs, making it difficult to document career growth or employment stability over time. There are little data available to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work, making it hard to make decisions about funding priorities and program design. The workforce development system in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania is not as cohesive or strategic as it is in some other regions. There are different workforce systems with different levels of services for different populations, such as women receiving Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF), dislocated workers, and young people.b When participants access further education or training, it is often on their own and not the result of program support or planning.
Long-term success requires continued education, but we have not learned how to integrate education and job training with employment. We continue to focus on the jobs of today, rather than figuring out how to prepare participants for the jobs of the future.
In the best programs I’ve seen, the funder played a minimal role in the operation of the programs, and the primary focus was on outcomes. This allowed the programs to be more responsive and creative in meeting the needs of program participants.
The success of some of the best programs I’ve been associated with depended on staff members who were genuinely caring and committed to working with people. The increasing trend to make workforce development a profession with increased requirements for certifications lessens the opportunities for these individuals to be involved in workforce development programs.