Fixing to Change: A Best Practices Assessment of One-Stop Job Centers Working With Welfare Recipients. Reduced Education, Training, and Screening

03/01/1999

All of the One-Stop sites visited are in states that are undergoing either a first or second generation set of welfare reforms that tend to de-emphasize education and training programs and instead, focus on immediate job search and other work experience or work search activities. In most cases, this shift dramatically limits the occupational options facing many TANF recipients as they face the job market. No longer may they have the luxury of contemplating occupational choices that entail a community college or bachelors' degree, and in many places even a community or technical college training certificate program may be unavailable. Instead, these options are now reserved for workers to pursue (generally with their own resources on their own time) after they have found employment. As a result, TANF recipients seeking employment are often limited to a set of employers who offer entry-level employment at relatively low wages.

The bulk of the low-wage employment in today's economy is concentrated in relatively few firms, typically in the service and retail sectors.(22) Many of these employers hire large numbers of low-wage workers but offer few opportunities for upward mobility in terms of skill acquisition or wages; this is due largely to the occupational structure of the firms and industries offering low-wage employment.(23) In most cases, these employers are willing to provide new hires with the minimal training necessary to perform low-skill tasks, but most of these skills are job or firm specific and are not easily transferred to the rest of the labor market.(24) Most, though not all, of the employers represented in our focus groups confirmed this profile, suggesting that in most local areas, there are likely to be no more than a few dozen key employers of low-skill workers. It is important to note, however, that the lack of advancement opportunity in most low-wage employment is not the fault of the employer. To move up the wage scale, most low-wage workers will need to change employers, and possibly industries, in order to find employers whose firms offer the opportunity for real wage and skill progression.

Part of the redesign of employment services under the One-Stop concept has been to eliminate the laborious, one-on-one intake of job seeker interviews with job counselors that were seen as a key component of screening and referring applicants to employers. While these methods are still used in some One-Stop systems, they are also augmented with self-service listings of job openings and applicants that allow job seekers and employers to self-screen each other. Some One-Stop managers and staff noted that they have found job seekers to be somewhat more severe in judging their skills in this process, which further limits their employment options. On the other hand, employers of TANF recipients frequently expressed their desire for more and better screening of referrals by One-Stop systems, although for the most part, their interests in screening focused more on screening for job readiness and substance abuse problems than for skill levels. According to most employment services personnel, this is not an uncommon complaint by employers, who are often under the impression that state employment service centers have the resources to conduct in-depth testing and screening for all referrals, which is clearly not the case. Screening for things like motivation and substance abuse are simply not possible under a self-service system.

Lower levels of education, training, and screening - combined with the tighter labor market - have led employers to become increasingly familiar with challenges and opportunities of working with the welfare-to-work population. These trends have also raised the importance of providing welfare recipients who are looking for work with a realistic understanding of the local labor market.