There is no single model of a work first program. What defines such programs is their overall philosophy: that any job is a good job and that the best way to succeed in the labor market is to join it, developing work habits and skills on the job rather than in a classroom. Work first programs also share a strong message that, for participants, employment is both the goal and the expectation. Beyond this common philosophy, however, work first programs vary significantly in the services they offer, the sequencing of their activities, the extent to which participation is required and enforced, and even their goals and approach.
Work first programs seek to move people from welfare into unsubsidized jobs as quickly as possible, and job search itself is a central activity in these programs. However, work first is more than just job search. Work first programs generally begin with job search for most participants, using the labor market itself as the test of employability. Then, for those who are not able to find jobs right away, work first provides additional activities geared toward addressing those factors which have impeded employment. These activities might include education, training, work experience, or other options. In the context of work first, they are generally short term, closely monitored, and either combined with or immediately followed by additional job search.
The Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation (MDRC) has evaluated a number of work first programs. Some of those programs are described below.
- "Labor force attachment" approach sites in the JOBS Evaluation (in Atlanta, Georgia; Grand Rapids, Michigan; and Riverside, California). Group job search (job club) is the first activity required for virtually all participants, followed by short-term education and training (and, occasionally, work experience) and subsequent job search for those who remain unemployed.
- Riverside County, California's, Greater Avenues for Independence (GAIN) program. Participants without a high school diploma (or a GED-a high school equivalency certificate) or who lacked proficiency in reading and math had a choice of job search, basic education, or instruction in English as a Second Language as their first activity, though job search was encouraged. Most other participants were required to begin with job search. Riverside's GAIN program conveyed a strong message, even to those who began with education and training, about the importance of quick employment.
- Florida's Project Independence. Individuals who were identified as "job ready" (on the basis of education and work experience) conducted an independent job search followed by job club and another search, which was generally followed by education or training for those who did not find a job. Those who were not classified as job ready were assigned to education or training as a first activity. The majority of the caseload met the definition of job ready.
- San Diego's Saturation Work Initiative Model (SWIM). Most participants were assigned first to a two-week job search workshop and then, if they had not found employment, to a three-month unpaid work experience position concurrent with biweekly job club sessions, and finally, if they were still not employed, to education and training activities.
- Arkansas's WORK program. All participants were assigned first to two weeks of job club followed by up to three months of individual job search. If still unsuccessful in finding a job, participants were then assigned to unpaid work experience positions.
Not all of these programs have been equally effective, and all have tailored their activities differently; yet all have embraced an approach that emphasizes quick entry into the labor market through a combination of job search and short-term education, training, or work experience activities.