#3] Targeting Workforce Dollars: You Don’t Get What You Don’t Pay For — STEVEN L. DAWSON
Workforce dollars are precious—particularly those targeting low-income jobseekers. The woman of color with a fifth-grade reading level; the returning veteran; the out-of-school youth with no employment experience; the immigrant laborer without papers; the court-involved; the individual recovering from addiction—their challenges differ, but each is seeking the stability and respect that steady employment can provide.
Chief Operating Officer
JEVS Human Services, Philadelphia
As always, Steve has given us a lot of food for thought in this piece.
One thing my current position at JEVS Human Services in Philadelphia has helped me to see is just how poor most “system change” thinking is from well-intentioned policy makers and philanthropists. The law of unintended consequences is always a bigger factor than you think and crucial interplays between differing institutions and policies generally under-appreciated.
In the spirit of systems thinking, I think we need a better sense of workforce interventions as more than “one-and-done” efforts and more of a continuous flow of interventions that — at their best — steadily move participants down the road to economic opportunity and independence.
Viewed in this way, “measuring the right things” is a lot more complicated. Incremental progress and critical life lessons surely have their place and can’t be completely discounted. This isn’t to say we should measure nothing or that we should paper over failure with platitudes about “learning.” Nevertheless, a narrow definition of success ignores the reality of how programs and processes often weave together in unexpected and unplanned ways. Our task as systems thinkers is to understand these interplays, reduce friction-points, and incent behaviors from a range of actors.
Thanks, Steve, for a provocative set of papers!
Thanks Steve for describing how data is important for assessing the effectiveness of workforce training prorams. I was responsible for the Management Information Systems for a Vermont Workforce Training organization with 7,000 participants in the 1970s. During that time I researched nationally for effective workforce training programs which we could replicate; from the research I did from books and reports produced by the DOL I never found any workforce training programs which were truly effective, unfortunately. Finally I got to work with a non-profit workforce training program called VT HITEC in the 2,000s which layered on free college credits and meeting the ‘just-in-time’ business expansion needs which resulted in a workforce training ‘system’ which helped build a sustainable, growing economy.
Senior Vice President
National Fund for Workforce Solutions
In this paper, Steve has important recommendations for the workforce development community to focus on employment stability and systems change outcomes and maximize the use of scarce dollars and human resources. These recommendations will require more rigor in the design and implementation of programs and systems change efforts and greater use of information, and cost data.
The recommendations require better design of program, ongoing program improvement and greater professionalization which is only possible with better infrastructure — especially information and accounting infrastructure —that can only be achieved with the support of both public and private funders.
The clarity of the mission for workforce development efforts— sustained and stable employment —is critical. Because without employment we have not helped anyone. Today there are too many individuals who never complete education and training programs. We seem to accept this drop-off. We have also come to accept that not all who complete will be employed. And then we have also come to accept that not all who are employed will be retained for a year!
We know that many stumble in the early stages of employment. Unfortunately, we usually lack sufficient information to even know how many have stayed in employment for a year. This will also necessitate greater attention and funding to support and services that the individual and the employer need after an individual begins employment. These are services few programs and employers seem to be effective at.
This mission cannot be successfully achieved without understanding the employer’s requirements, the target population and a deep analysis of the barriers to success. At the beginning of every program there has to be a thorough assessment to understand where each individual is coming from, what kind of experience, reading, writing and math ability he/she has, and the kind of support services required.
This will require a systematic documentation, classification and understanding of each barrier and the articulation of strategies for overcoming each barrier, individually and in the combinations that program participants encounter in reality. This also requires that all necessary services are in place and available to ensure that all program participants complete and get employed. And then, as Steve suggests, this will require careful tracking of each individual, the strategies and solutions each is exposed to, and their level of success.
Industry sector partnerships, such as those in the network of the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, provide the collaborative framework in which employers, and service providers can work together to achieve the aims that this paper elaborates. There are partnerships that are already doing many of the things that are mentioned here. At the same time there are others that can do better. From the beginning, the National Fund has also required each of its funder collaboratives to work with evaluators to be able to evaluate and to improve the effectiveness of programs and systems change efforts. Together with program staff, that is the kind of resource that can be very useful in the sophisticated and rigorous approach that Steve Dawson’s paper advocates.
Kevin Stump (New York)
I really appreciate Dawson’s diligence in defining success by outlining critical elements when designing and scaling programs. A great foundational framework when building programs that would be interesting to workshop when reforming already existing programs and infrastructures.
Dawson makes clear the need to use sophisticated data. I think we all can recognize that not every shop has the capacity to do this on their own and that systems-level change–as Dawson explicitly calls for–needs to better integrate data at every stage from concept-to-funding-to-practice-to-evaluation and onward.
As a research and policy group, Young Invincibles has observed the varying degree to which programs, policies, and systems interact with data, which, as Dawson is accurately suggesting, would not only inform program design and delivery but would also be core to conducting real program evaluation. Unfortunately, the inconsistency, misunderstanding, and lack of capacity/expertise to conduct real program evaluation is another observation of ours that this paper alludes to by calling out the need to better integrate more data across the board.
The lack of data and the missing evaluation leaves the workforce development system as a whole somewhat myopic. However, to be fair, the lack of data and real program evaluation is not unique to the workforce development field but can be found across all social service work, because data systems can be hard to use and expensive and real program evaluation is timely, not funded, misunderstood, and requires real expertise.
The case study in the paper seems promising, however, New York should be somewhat hesitant and diligent in pursuing pay-for-performance funding structures. There has not been a real compact from state government to adequately fund public higher education in years. While the Arkansas model has produced results, I would caution New Yorkers to ensure that full investment is there and that we don’t create a funding model that squeezes some of the state’s rural communities who may need more than just a dollar incentive. Nonetheless, Dawson’s point is well-taken…we need a results-driven infrastructure.
Finally, Young Invincibles NY office is releasing a report in the coming weeks on youth unemployment in New York State and the NYS Urban Youth Jobs Program, a tax credit to employers who hire and retain low-income young adults. The thesis of Dawson’s paper–to collaboratively design, track/evaluate, and invest in targeted strategies that we know work–can be applied to the structural flaws of tax credits like the Urban Youth Jobs Program (or, similarly, the federal Work Opportunity Tax Credit). These tax credits are often not fully spent down, meaning the claimed investment amount is often a huge understatement of what is actually being invested, raising the question…what happens with those lost, but precious, workforce dollars? Further, these types of tax credits do not meet the core design elements outlined in Dawson’s paper, making clear the need to reform such programs.
Overall, Dawson’s paper is a critical think piece giving policy makers and practitioners an opportunity to ask some difficult but important questions.