Early Implementation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program: Findings From Exploratory Site Visits and Review of Program Plans. Emphasis on Job Retention and Supported Work Reflects Program Intent and Challenges

02/01/2000

Most WtW programs observed so far provide a full range of employment preparation and support services, although some emphasize certain types of activities, in response to the special challenges of helping their target population. In all 22 sites visited, WtW-funded programs are providing standard employment and training services, including employability assessment, job search assistance in group workshops or through one-on-one counseling, job development, and job placement. In addition, two other employment-related components frequently appear in WtW programs: job retention services and supported employment experience.

The way in which WtW programs combine standard job search and placement services with more intensive retention and supported employment services is in part a reflection of how these programs relate to TANF programs. In some sites, WtW participants may already have gone through the basic job search required under the TANF program, before they are referred to the WtW program. Even in that circumstance, the WtW programs often include job readiness, job search, and placement components, tailored to deal with the particularly difficult problems of this subgroup of the overall TANF population. In some places, WtW participants who have already failed to find a job in the TANF job search program may bypass these services and be assigned directly to a different component  such as structured work experience  that provides greater support for resolving preemployment problems, and eventually for finding and keeping a job.

Most Grantees Are Beginning to Develop Job Retention Services.  Past research on employment programs for welfare recipients confirms that, while programs and demonstrations generally succeed in helping welfare recipients obtain jobs, many recipients soon lose or leave jobs, often returning to welfare. The TANF time limit makes improving job retention even more urgent. In part, the new focus on job retention reflects growing recognition of welfare recipients' personal problems, which can interfere with working, and the high turnover rate in low-wage jobs.

In general, the 22 WtW grant programs visited were just beginning to develop their postemployment retention services and refine their plans based on participants' actual needs. The retention services defined by grantees vary in two dimensions:  (1) the way in which case management is extended and becomes the core of retention services, and (2) the use of incentives for job retention.

The most typical approach to job retention services is to extend case management and supportive services for one or even in some cases two years after a participant begins a job. The intensity of this extended attention varies. Some programs provide intensive, ongoing case management beginning before employment starts and continuing afterwards, with counselors contacting participants weekly or at other specified intervals, or serving as mentors or as mediators between workers and employers. In United Way's Birmingham Works program, for example, each participant is assigned both a case manager and a job coach. Job coaches focus exclusively on employment issues; once participants have begun working at the best initial job they can get, job coaches work with them to upgrade their skills so they can move into the job they really want. Other grantees' postemployment services are less formal and less intensive, but in nearly every program visited, staff consider it part of their job to assist individuals who request help in finding a new job. Most staff interviewed feel that, at a minimum, follow-up contacts and extended supportive services such as child care and transportation assistance are important to job retention. Since there is no limit on how long WtW funds can be used for an individual participant, some services, such as job coaching or mentoring, continue as much as two years after a participant begins a job.

Some programs are encouraging job retention by offering financial incentives to workers or employers, or both. In Kansas City, for example, the Full Employment Council offers employers a wage subsidy to offset costs of training participants placed with them as interns, and employers have the option of instead receiving up to $1,000 to purchase outside training for the participant (referred to as a "customer"). The incentive payment is made if the employee is retained in unsubsidized employment for nine months. Over that period, participants receive vouchers they can use for work-related assistance, totaling $1,500 in value after nine months of consecutive employment with the same employer. These vouchers can be used for employment-related goods and services, such as transportation, day care, housing, clothing, or additional education and training.

It is common for grantees to define their postemployment services as promoting "retention and advancement," but experience sometimes forces a focus on the basics of just staying employed. The overall structure of the WtW program as defined in legislation presumes that once participants become employed, they can use postemployment services to develop and strengthen their skills and find better employment. In at least some grantee programs visited, however, the depth of participants' problems that emerge has led staff to focus on addressing the most immediate issues participants must resolve just to hold on to a job. One contractor for the San Francisco PIC, for example, found that crisis needs such as eviction threats and domestic violence consume staff attention, leaving little room to address longer-term career development concerns. How and to what extent grantees can systematically attend to job advancement concerns will be an important issue to be addressed as the evaluation continues.

Many WtW Grant Programs Are Emphasizing Supported Employment Activities.  One of the most distinctive developments in programs funded with WtW grants is the emphasis being placed on what can be called supported employment. Rather than simply placing individuals in regular jobs, many grantees are trying to widen the opportunities available to participants and increase their chances of success.

These supported employment efforts encompass not only the kinds of financial incentives described above, but also enhancement of the participant's work experience. The financial incentives can increase opportunities by encouraging employers to hire individuals they might not otherwise consider or provide structured on-the-job training beyond what they might otherwise offer new employees. Enhancement of the participant's work experience can take several forms. A specified number of hours of education or skills training can be provided, "wrapped around" the participant's work hours. Education or training instruction can be integrated into work experience assignments. Some grantees provide participants with intensive counseling, support services, and job development while they are in a work experience assignment. These enhancements are occurring for participants placed in jobs in the private sector as well as the public and nonprofit sectors.

Supported employment strategies are very common among WtW grantees. In the first grantee survey, more than 90 percent of WtW grantees reported that they would be providing such supported employment activities as an interim step toward unsubsidized employment. This finding was confirmed by the visits to 22 programs (Table D.2). Twenty of the 22 sites visited provide some form of supported employment, including work experience, on-the-job training, and internships (see Appendix C for details). These types of work activities have traditionally been offered to some extent through employment and training and welfare programs, but the site visits suggest that such supported employment may be more prominent in WtW grant programs, playing a role at least equal to direct job placement or workfare (where welfare recipients must work in exchange for their TANF benefits). This result is consistent with the overall intent of the WtW legislation to address the needs of the most difficult to employ.

TABLE D.2
SUPPORTED EMPLOYMENT IN WELFARE-TO-WORK GRANT PROGRAMS
IN 22 SELECTED LOCAL SITES
Extent of Supported Employment Number of Sites
Little or no focus on subsidized work or enhanced work experience; focus is on entering regular jobs 2
Enhanced work experience for those unable to obtain regular job 13
Supported employment or work experience is the main WtW activity 7
  • Private business or industry partnerships (5)
  • Work assignments in public agencies and nonprofit organizations (2)
Total Number of Local Sites Visited 22
Source:  National Evaluation of the Welfare-to-Work Grants Program, Exploratory Site Visits, 1999.

WtW grantees use supported employment activities as either a back-up strategy or an initial strategy for helping individual participants. In 13 of the 22 sites, the program staff first try to help the participant enter unsubsidized employment before considering use of supported employment activities. If participants' personal problems or skill deficits make entry to regular employment impossible, then the program can place them for a defined period in a supported employment activity. Efforts to place the participant in a regular unsubsidized job may continue without pause, or resume later after a defined period of supported employment. For example, in Philadelphia, WtW participants are first referred to one of eight Regional Service Centers (RSCs) for basic job search and placement assistance. Participants deemed by RSC staff to have little chance of finding regular employment, based on an initial assessment or a short period of job search, are referred to the Philadelphia@Work program, which places them in six-month positions with public and nonprofit employers, with their wages paid by the program. They work 25 hours per week, spend 10 hours per week in "wraparound" training, and are supported by a job coach. Toward the end of the six-month assignment, the job coach and the RSC collaborate to place the participant in unsubsidized employment.

Some grantees, in contrast, make supported employment their main WtW strategy and use it for all participants.(10)  In seven of the sites visited, the WtW program places all participants in a regular work environment and enhances the work assignment with some combination of education, skills development, and occupational training.

Whatever the sequence in which they are offered, these supported employment components tend to emphasize either public sector employment or partnerships with specific employers or industries in the private sector. The "public sector employment" program of the Detroit Employment and Training Department, for example, places participants in positions for up to six months with public, nonprofit, or in some cases private sector employers, and pays the full wage for that period.

In other sites, participants are placed primarily in the private sector with a specific employer or set of partner employers in a particular industry, or in particular occupations. This model is sometimes referred to as a sectoral, or work-based, approach. For example, the Employer Partners Program, administered by the Boston Economic Development Industrial Corporation (EDIC), is a collaboration between EDIC's Office of Jobs and Community Service and major employers in several key industry sectors  including such firms as the Marriott Corporation, Partners Health Care, Benjamin Health Care, and TJ Maxx. All participants accepted by the employer go through a six- to eight-week paid internship and training program operated by the employer and a partner case management agency. During this period, the case management agency runs job preparation workshops 12 to 15 hours a week at the workplace, and the employer supervises on-the-job training for 30 to 35 hours a week. The business partner makes a commitment to hire as regular employees all participants who complete the six- to eight-week program.

In some cases, the sectoral model is more clearly focused on particular occupations. In New York City, for example, the Satellite Child Care Program (SCCP) of the Consortium for Worker Education, focuses on preparing participants as home-based child care providers, through a combination of work experience at child care centers and structured training. DePaul University in Chicago, in one of its WtW program components, focuses on preparing participants for positions in the hospitality industry, through a program sequence involving two weeks of classroom training, two weeks of ongoing classes and interviewing with hotel employers, and an unpaid internship of up to three weeks.

Thus, one of the distinct features of the emerging WtW grants-funded programs appears to be the emphasis placed on supported employment opportunities, typically involving some form of subsidized work or enhanced work experience. The work experience usually is enhanced by instruction or workshops intended to develop employability. Enhancements may include efforts to improve "soft skills" appropriate to the workplace in general, exploration of the skills and other requirements of specific occupations, and activities to prepare the individual for regular employmentin a specific occupation or industry. In programs that offer subsidized employment, work assignments tend to be very job-specific and generally involve a business partner. Although most of the programs are still in the early stages of implementation, their experiences in developing and operating these enhanced and supported employment models over the next few years may yield useful insights for programs targeting persons with serious employment barriers.