Before you begin to design or implement a work first program, take the time to assess your current program and map out where you need to go.
General Guidance for Program Planners
- Remember that change does not happen overnight. It takes time to develop rules and procedures, train staff, ensure that the program's message is in place, and create linkages with other agencies and service providers.
- Be prepared to make adjustments as you go along. Change is a complicated process. If possible, pilot changes before implementing them systemwide, or phase in changes over time.
- Plan ahead. You can begin to put in place structures for facilitating change-such as working groups or interagency task forces-even before the exact nature of the change is determined.
- Make change an inclusive process. Involve internal staff, partner agencies, political players, employers, and advocates in planning for change. (See section 12 for suggestions on building support for the program.)
Transforming Your Current Program
The list below describes some common features of work first programs and outlines the key challenges for transforming existing programs to include those features. Specific strategies for meeting these challenges are offered throughout this guide.
- Moving to a mandatory program. Shifting from a largely voluntary program to one in which participation is mandatory involves first establishing who will be required to participate and what will be required, and then putting into place mechanisms to identify, refer, and track the mandatory caseload-both internally and in agreements with outside service providers. Staff will need to adapt to working with participants who may be less motivated and less attuned to the program's goals, or who may have more, or more serious, barriers to participation. In addition, staff will need to take on a new role-that of enforcing the mandate and sanctioning participants for noncompliance. Training staff in working with mandatory participants and communicating the program's philosophy to staff and service providers are important steps in implementing a mandatory program. Finally, voluntary participants often enter a program already knowing what they want to do or already self-enrolled in education or training. A critical policy decision is whether to accept these self-initiated activities. Staff may also need to spend more time helping mandatory participants identify their goals and develop their employment plans.
- Expanding participation. Many programs that currently serve only a small segment of the caseload will want to work with a broader portion of the caseload as they shift to a work first model. The task of expanding participation is made somewhat easier in work first programs by the relatively rapid flow of participants into and through the program. However, moving to a full-scale program will require increasing capacity in terms of staff, resources, facilities, activities, and service providers. Systems for tracking, monitoring, and referral of participants will also need to be enhanced to make sure that participants do not get "lost" in the enlarged program.
- Shifting to a quick-employment focus. Many welfare-to-work programs implemented under JOBS focused on connecting participants to educational opportunities as a longer-term employment strategy. While education can be an important part of a work first program, the emphasis on quick employment requires a fundamental shift in the activities provided, in the order of those activities, and in the philosophy under which the program operates. Some time needs to be spent reorienting staff and service providers to the new philosophy, developing stronger job search and employment-related services, designing new assessment tools and performance measures, and reworking agreements with outside service providers to promote the new focus.
- Changing notions of "employability." Many programs begin with assessments that separate out participants on the basis of education levels and determinations of "job readiness." Others reflect the philosophy that participants face multiple barriers to work and that employment is not a realistic goal in the short term. In contrast, a work first model generally begins with the expectation that everyone is capable of finding work and lets the job market itself-through job search activities-determine who is employable. Program planners making this shift need to rethink both when assessment is conducted and what is included in the assessment. They also face the substantial challenge of communicating the program's new message and moving staff to a philosophy of high expectations, in which a belief that all participants can succeed is put into practice.
- Focusing on outcomes. Many programs, whether they embody work first or another approach, focus primarily on the processes involved in bringing participants into the program and then maintaining them in the program. A key challenge in implementing a strong work first program is shifting the focus of staff and management toward getting participants employed. Administrators should define program goals in terms of desired outcomes and measure progress toward those outcomes, while taking care not to promote such undesired results as "creaming"-that is, working only with those participants who are most likely to succeed. This shift in focus can also be addressed through staff training, clear communication of the program's message, establishment of performance measures, and other tools. Finally, simplifying and streamlining paperwork and administrative tasks, as well as providing clerical and systems support for those tasks, can free staff members to focus on getting participants jobs.
- Implementing a high-performance program. Many programs may appear to be work first, but include only job search, have only individual job search, or operate weak job club activities, which act more as job readiness or career exploration workshops. Research suggests that stronger group job search activities and more mixed program models can be more effective (see section 2 for a summary of the research). Moving to a high-performance work first model involves putting into place quality job clubs and additional employment-focused activities for those who do not find jobs right away. Training for staff and agreements with service providers will also need to be revamped to put the improved work first model into practice.