Many welfare-to-work programs use education as a means of getting people to the point where they can get a job that pays well enough for them to become self-sufficient. A work first approach instead suggests that it is best to get into the workforce-even in a lower-paying or part-time job-and work up from there. The effects of adult education on employment and earnings are complex and appear to be inconsistent. However, short-term education can be a useful activity for those who are unsuccessful in their initial job search. Program planners might also consider allowing opportunities for participants to combine part-time work with education, so that participants can improve their skills while they gain work experience. Note, however, that federal law places limits on the number of participants who can be in certain types of educational activities and on what types of educational activities can count toward participation requirements (see Appendix A for a listing of allowable activities).
The following guidelines can help programs tailor education to fit into the framework of a work first philosophy that emphasizes quick employment. In general, these guidelines require case managers to work closely with education providers-rather than just referring participants over-and to pay increased attention to the quality and appropriateness of the educational service, both for the participant and for the employment goal.
General Guidelines for Education Activities
- Encourage or require participants to complete a job search before entering education activities, and follow education immediately with additional job search.
- Make sure that mechanisms to monitor attendance and measure progress are in place. A large proportion (often more than 40 percent) of people who enter adult education as part of a welfare-to-work program do not complete their education program, and attendance rates among those enrolled in adult education appear to range from 50 to 75 percent. Be prepared to reassign to job search or other activities those participants who are not attending classes regularly or are not making progress.
- Make sure that education is closely linked to the employment goal. Depending on the type of education, that may mean looking for short-term programs or programs that focus on job-related skills, integrate education with skills training, have high completion rates, or prepare students for fields with a significant number of job openings.
- Encourage or require participants interested in education to combine it with employment. Make this a formal part of the program, rather than just rhetoric, by allowing participants to meet program requirements with some combination of school and part-time work. Look for employment opportunities that are in a related field to enhance what is being learned, and that are at or near education sites to make the combination of school and work more feasible. Administrators in Los Angeles found that some education providers were willing to adjust classroom schedules for students who worked part time.
- Encourage and support participants in pursuing education once they are working. For example, Florida provides funding for participants to access education and training for up to two years after leaving welfare.
- Structure contracts to focus education providers on desired outcomes. In Los Angeles, for example, a shift to performance-based contracts resulted in a shift in the focus of basic education providers. Providers and instructors knew that the goal was short-term education followed by employment. Some schools even added job resource rooms, and worked to place participants in jobs as they completed their education.
- If participants enter the work first program already self-enrolled (and making progress) in employment-focused education, allow them to continue. Provide flexibility in meeting participation requirements by scheduling job search or other activities around school hours.
Approaching Different Levels of Education
Adult basic education (ABE). Lack of basic skills (generally defined as reading and math skills below the eighth-grade level) does not automatically mean that a participant will not be able to find a job, and ABE may be inappropriate for many participants whose experiences in school have been negative. In addition, MDRC survey results suggest that many welfare recipients would prefer assistance that is directly linked to getting a job. However, for those who are interested in education or who are unsuccessful in their job search, ABE can improve job qualifications and skills as well as self-esteem and confidence. Furthermore, many basic education programs are increasing their focus on employment and adjusting their curricula to emphasize skills needed on the job. The Los Angeles program described above is one example. Setting standards for and closely monitoring progress can also help improve ABE outcomes.
High school equivalency (GED). For some people, a General Educational Development (GED) certificate-commonly referred to as a high school equivalency certificate-can increase access to jobs and training opportunities as well as self-esteem. Work first programs can encourage participants who are close to achieving a GED to do so, even in conjunction with employment. Completion time can be reduced by closely monitoring progress and emphasizing the link between completion and employment.
High school completion. Research shows that people with a high school diploma earn more than those with a GED certificate. Work first participants can take advantage of the adult high schools in many communities to obtain their diplomas. However, unlike a GED, high school completion requires not just passing a proficiency test, but completing the required number of credits. Therefore, high school completion should be considered only for those participants who are within a year or so of graduation.
College. Participants interested in higher education are generally a self-selected and highly motivated group. Work first case managers can help participants who are interested in attending college-and who have the prerequisite high school diploma or GED certificate-tailor postsecondary education to their employment goals. (Remember, too, that college attendance may not count toward meeting federal participation requirements.) Participants in Vermont's Welfare Restructuring Project who want to attend college are required to research their chosen field and convince program staff of their potential for employment in that field.
Most work first programs also emphasize short-term certificate programs rather than four-year degrees-but be advised that participants often end up in remedial courses, which can slow down completion of even short-term education. Some programs have worked with local community colleges to break courses down into shorter, more narrowly defined segments, so participants can begin by learning just what is needed to enter the job market and then continue their education to move ahead in their field. Finally, encourage participants in higher education to take advantage of academic and social supports available on campus.
English as a second language (ESL). ESL is often an automatic activity for participants who are not proficient in English, and participants often stay in ESL for extended periods. At the same time, ESL programs are scarce in many places; as a result, waiting lists and prolonged program deferrals are common. Stepping up monitoring and establishing standards for progress can keep ESL on track as a step toward employment. In addition, ESL programs themselves can become more employment-focused-for example, by emphasizing language skills needed on the job. ESL, however, does not need to be a prerequisite for job search, and, as with other education options, work first programs can encourage participants to combine ESL with part-time work. In Los Angeles, job clubs are conducted in Spanish, and occasionally in Armenian, Vietnamese, and Cambodian. Instructors report that those job clubs tend to have higher rates of employment than do the English-language job clubs.