11. Understanding the Caseload and Labor Market
Obtaining some basic information about the caseload and the local labor market can help planners get a feel for the environment in which the work first program will operate. In general, it makes sense to try to gather only existing, readily available information rather than to conduct an in-depth study. Some information can be obtained from management information systems, labor agency data, and other sources. In addition, planners might consider conducting a baseline survey for a few weeks in order to obtain background information about the characteristics, interests, and perceived barriers of participants. The Metropolitan Tulsa Chamber of Commerce conducted an in-depth labor market analysis when designing IndEx, an employer-driven welfare-to-work program. The analysis included employer and employee surveys, meetings with economic development agencies, federal and state data sources, and regional and local planning data. The Chamber used the analysis to determine what gaps needed to be filled in the labor market and to develop criteria for assessing participants on the basis of the skills needed in the local marketplace.
Below is a list of the kinds of information planners might want to know, followed by some of the reasons the information might be useful in the context of a work first program. Be aware that there is a limit to what this information can tell you. It is difficult to predict how participants will fare in a program on the basis of either demographic characteristics or labor market conditions, and work first programs have been successfully implemented in a variety of environments.
Information About the Caseload
- Basic caseload demographics, including number of single-parent and two-parent families and number and ages of children. To understand who will be participating and what their child care needs might be.
- Extent of work experience. To get an idea of how easy or difficult it will be for participants to find work and what wages they might earn. Also, to balance the program's focus between, on the one hand, marketing the idea of work and teaching basic work habits (for those with little or no work history) and, on the other hand, emphasizing job retention and advancement strategies (for those with a proven ability to find work).
- Percentage of caseload with reported earnings. To know how many people are already working at least part time, and as an indication of how likely it is that participants will mix work and welfare. It is also important to understand how grant levels, financial incentives, and other policies affect the trade-off between welfare and work and the ease or difficulty of combining welfare and work.
- Percentage who leave welfare due to employment and rates of recidivism for this group. To provide some insight into how much the program should focus on job search, on helping participants succeed in jobs, and on helping those who lose a job find a new one.
- Perceived barriers to employment. To focus the program's message and services on addressing or overcoming those barriers.
- Race and ethnicity. To identify issues of race in the labor market that may arise as participants look for jobs or as program staff develop jobs; to identify cultural differences that might change how the program is marketed or how activities are approached; and to identify the need for services in languages other than English.
Information About the Labor Market
- Trends in state and local income and wage levels, particularly for families at the bottom of the income spectrum. To help you calculate the trade-off between welfare and work, which will affect participants' motivation and the way staff members market the program. If the jobs available are low wage, you may also want to consider financial incentives (see section 38) and other supports to make work pay.
- Unemployment statistics and other indicators of the economic climate. To help anticipate how long it will take for participants to find jobs and how many might need additional services after completing job search. In a good economy, more jobs may be available, but welfare recipients are likely to have greater barriers to employment. In contrast, jobs may be scarcer at times of high unemployment, but a greater proportion of those on welfare will have job skills and experience.
- Needs of local employers. To help in assessing participants, advising them, and designing useful activities for those who are initially unsuccessful at finding a job.
- Location of jobs. If available jobs are not located close to where participants live, you may want to consider strategies for addressing transportation problems so that participants have access to those jobs (see section 7).
- Gender, racial, and ethnic differences in job opportunities. Historically, certain occupations have not been open to women or members of particular racial or ethnic groups. You may decide to help participants break into such nontraditional areas of employment. You may also want to teach participants strategies for dealing with discrimination in job search and on the job.
- Prospects for employment growth by sector. To help staff members target job search to geographical areas or industries where there are openings and room for growth, and to help job developers determine where they should concentrate their efforts.
- Longer-term economic prospects. It is useful to consider the question: How will your strategy fare in a recession? When jobs are scarce, it may be more difficult for a large portion of the caseload to find work. In addition, more people typically enter the welfare rolls during recessions-including many who may be considered job ready-thereby expanding caseloads and increasing spending on cash assistance (though other factors, such as changes in family structure and program rules, also affect caseload size). This may reduce resources available for work first programs at the same time as the number of potential participants increases.