Private Employers and TANF Recipients. 2.5  Employer Reasons for Not Hiring TANF Recipients

05/25/2004

Why do employers fail to hire or make an effort to hire TANF recipients?

Employers hiring entry-level workers are usually more concerned with "soft skills," (such as conscientiousness and the ability to work as a member of a team), than about job-specific skills and training (Regenstein and Meyer, 1998). While many employers are skeptical that welfare recipients have the soft skills necessary to perform assigned tasks, other businesses with actual experience employing welfare recipients are less skeptical (Regenstein and Meyer, 1998); the soft-skills weakness of recipients is largely confined to absenteeism (Holzer and Stoll, 2001; Holzer, 2002). The importance of these views is underscored by the fact that employers are more willing to provide training in "hard" or occupational skills than in soft skills or basic literacy (Giloth, 2000).

In addition, the hard skill requirements on most jobs sought by welfare recipients "are not trivial," especially in terms of reading, math and computer skills (Holzer, 2002a). Many jobs require post-secondary training and, for those that do not, three-quarters of employers require, or strongly prefer, applicants to have high school diplomas or GEDs. Thus, even when GEDs, diplomas, or other credentials are not required, jobs are likely to be given to applicants who have them. This is a problem for long-term welfare recipients, 60 percent of whom have not completed high school or a GED (Holzer, 2002b).

Many employers also believe that TANF recipients routinely possess other significant barriers, such as unreliable transportation and child care, that limit their ability to work effectively. Employers are worried that these barriers increase the probability of poor performance and job turnover. Employers' concern is warranted, because there is extensive evidence that multiple barriers are common among welfare recipients (e.g., Danziger, Corcoran, Danziger, Heflin, Kalil, Levine, Rosen, Seefeldt, Siefert and Tolman. (1999). Nevertheless, the caseload is diverse, and many recipients do not have these barriers.

Employers' concerns are heightened by their lack of confidence in the capacity of publicly provided supports to successfully address these barriers (Roberts and Padden, 1998a). In addition, research has shown that TANF recipients' barriers often include difficult issues such as mental illness, substance abuse, and domestic violence. One expert panel member commented that employers often have encountered undiagnosed mental disabilities in TANF recipients who work. Another panel member noted that poor skills and multiple barriers do not foster a positive perception of the TANF population among employers. However, Holzer's survey data indicates that employers do not automatically have negative opinions about TANF recipients who work.

Hard skill requirements have significant impacts on the race and gender of the person hired for a given position. Over the past decade, however, the focus has shifted to soft skills. This is problematic, because employers' perceptions of soft skills are subjective, and cultural and racial differences may affect employer assessments of such skills.

Finally, many employers have had little or no experience employing welfare recipients, and have no evidence that contradicts their preconceptions regarding poor soft skills and barriers to employment. Employers that do hire welfare recipients tend to have more positive feelings about recipients than those who do not (Regenstein and Meyer, 1998). Employers are gaining more experience with welfare recipients as employees (as indicated by the unprecedented extent of recipient hiring in recent years), suggesting that employer attitudes toward recipients may improve over time.

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