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Fixing to Change: A Best Practices Assessment of One-Stop Job Centers Working With Welfare Recipients

Publication Date
Feb 28, 1999

Contents of Chapter:

This study was undertaken in an effort to assess the impacts of recent policy, organizational, and technology changes on the delivery of employment services to welfare recipients. The study examines five of the most developed and promising One-Stop Job Centers around the country to find out what makes them work well, and to understand their potential for moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency. This study does not provide a formal evaluation of these model programs, but identifies those approaches and practices that seem to be working well in different locations.(1)

The Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) created a new policy and program framework for workforce preparation and employment. Under the WIA, states and local areas must establish workforce investment boards to oversee the delivery of a broad array of services for youth, adults, and dislocated workers, including federally funded job services. Job-seekers and business are expected to benefit from a One-Stop delivery system designed to offer a full range of employment and career counseling services to the general public via a single location or a system of linked service centers. These One-Stop Job Centers are expected to provide customers with:

  • A preliminary assessment of their skill levels, aptitudes, abilities, and support service needs;
  • Information on a full array of employment-related services, including information about local education and training service providers;
  • Help filing claims for unemployment insurance and evaluating eligibility for job training and education programs or student financial aid;
  • Job search and placement assistance, and career counseling;
  • Access to up-to-date labor market information which identifies job vacancies, skills necessary for in-demand jobs, and provides information about local, regional and national employment trends.

Through One-Stop Job Centers, employers are intended to have a single point of contact to provide information about current and future skills needed by their workers and to list job openings, creating a single system for finding job-ready skilled workers who meet their needs.

Many One-Stop Job Centers have already been established in response to earlier initiatives by the U.S. Department of Labor, and in response to federal and state welfare reforms. Some of these centers have been operating long enough to develop an understanding of how well they serve different client groups. The purpose of this study is to examine some of the most promising One-Stop models to better understand what makes them work well and the potential they offer for moving people from welfare to self-sufficiency.



Five One-Stop models were selected based on their success in addressing welfare-to-work issues, geographic distribution, and urban/rural diversity. One-Stop officials at each site were asked to provide background information and to set up separate focus group interviews with One-Stop management, staff, current welfare clients, previous welfare clients, and local employers of welfare clients. Researchers conducted focus group interviews on site, guided by a structured set of questions.

Each One-Stop site was also asked to provide three types of data to support this research:

  1. The characteristics of welfare clients in the area,
  2. Service records and characteristics of a sample of between 70 and 150 welfare clients served by the One-Stop, and
  3. Data on employment and training outcomes for the sample of clients.

Five One-Stop Models


The five One-Stop models included in the study are:

  • Workforce Development Center, Marshalltown, Iowa: This Center is the collocation of seven agencies, including strong participation of the local community college, with oversight by a local Workforce Development Board.
  • Kenosha County Job Center, Kenosha, Wisconsin: This Center offers one of the most integrated collocation models in the country, with a long list of state, county, non-profit and for-profit organizations collocated in a small, urban shopping center.
  • Tarrant County Resource Connection, Fort Worth, Texas: The Resource Connection offers another collocation model for 14 agencies in 12 buildings on a 92 acre campus near the South Campus of the Tarrant County Junior College and not far from several of the highest need areas in the city.
  • Northwest Michigan JobNet, Traverse City, Michigan: JobNet serves a predominantly rural, 10-county area on the south shore of Lake Michigan.
  • Whatcom County Network Consortium, Bellingham, Washington: The WorkNet Consortium offers a "first stop" or a "no wrong door" model of service delivery, where a client can go to any of the four partners in northwestern Washington and get information about services available from all the partners.

These models were selected based on their progress in implementing the One-Stop concept for welfare-to-work initiatives, their reputation for innovation and success, and their geographic dispersion and diversity. All but one, Whatcom County, had received implementation funding from the US Department of Labor (DoL). Note that very few major urban centers had established a One-Stop model that was ready for assessment when the study started in early 1997. This observation may reflect the difficulties inherent in coordinating or integrating multiple services in the complex organizational settings typical of major cities.

All of the sites have a number of similar characteristics. Some of the similarities include similar origins of the initiative to create the One-Stop, a common set of core partners, programs and program elements, and a familiar set of personnel, space, technology, and state/local issues.

Several unique characteristics in each of the One-Stop systems underscore the diversity of local circumstances, capacities, and system designs. Differences in partnerships and integration, work requirements, data systems and funding reflect the variety of One-Stop responses to the welfare-to-work mandate. To some degree, the evolution of local One-Stop systems in the local economic, policy, and institutional environment is an ongoing, dynamic adjustment process, with different systems examined here illustrating different points on the learning curve. Given this diversity, it is unrealistic to expect that a single One-Stop model will be appropriate for all localities. Similarly, it would be too simplistic to assume that all One-Stop Centers will be able to provide the same level or quality of services.

Successful Models


In our national scan for successful models, we found very few One-Stop systems that had been operating for a period of time in large urban areas. Most of those that we did find were either overshadowed in their reported success by other sites within the same state, were simply too new to be usefully assessed, or did not sufficiently focus their services on welfare recipients.(2)  Our sample of One-Stop models thus contains only one system in a major metropolitan area, Tarrant County (Fort Worth).

We infer from this experience that the One-Stop concept may be easier to implement, and in some cases, more appropriate to smaller metropolitan areas and rural business centers. In many of these areas, One-Stop models may have emerged in part because it is easier to identify the appropriate institutions and resources for inclusion and exercise local leadership, without the complex systems and often overlapping constituencies and politics associated with human services in larger urban areas. However, the difficulty in establishing a One-Stop system may not reflect on the system's success, once established. As a result, it simply may be necessary to wait longer to evaluate the success of the One-Stop model in major urban labor markets.

In all of the sites visited, it was clear that established One-Stop systems have all had to address a similar set of challenges. Inclusion of partners, co-location or coordinated system approach, technology and data systems, facility management, contracting out -- all of these issues must be addressed and agreed to by multiple agencies for the One-Stop to be successful. To some degree, the "success" of a local One-Stop may depend on how long it has been working at resolving these issues, allowing the system to evolve as institutions and partners learn from their interaction and adapt to changes in federal and state policies and programs.

Key Factors

Based on our observations and interviews, three key factors tend to contribute to the success of a One-Stop center:

  • Service Integration Enhances Retention of Clients: Generally, it appeared that the greater the level of service integration, the better the One-Stop was able to retain clients after orientation.
  • Co-location of Welfare and Employment Services Has Benefits: Co-location of welfare and employment services seems to offer significant net benefits for TANF clients and improves relationships with welfare caseworkers. We found no evidence of any negative stigma associated with co-location for traditional, non-welfare clients of employment service agencies.
  • Individualized Attention Matters: It is not clear that any of the One-Stop models reviewed has the resources to reliably expect that clients will achieve self-sufficiency, but it is clear that the individualized attention that some clients received played a key role in their personal success. This attention is often reflected via informal, ongoing contact with clients through different phases of assistance and employment. These relationships appear to be easier to maintain in rural and small metropolitan areas than in larger, urban centers.

Promising Program Elements

There are several promising program elements among the five One-Stop models. While the excellence of each of these elements may not imply overall program effectiveness, they do tend to help illustrate some of the activities being done well in the context of the One-Stop concept. Some highlights include:

  • In-Depth Assessment and Adult Education: Despite the current disfavor of assessment within the national policy community, Kenosha has developed an individualized, in-depth approach to skills and labor market assessment and education that is particularly effective.
  • Employer Outreach and One-Stop Design: In Traverse City, One-Stop managers actively solicited the suggestions and advice of the local business community in the original design of the One-Stop. These contacts also help keep the door open for contacts and requests from One-Stop case managers.
  • The Data System Linkage: Tarrant County's new data system is more than just a centralized mechanism for storing files, it is expected to form a communications system that allows case workers to communicate with each other, reducing paperwork and the number of phone calls and unproductive appointments necessary to line up multiple services for clients. Traverse City's experience with shared systems of this kind suggests the potential for freeing up some of the time that case workers must spend dealing with administrative issues, allowing them to provide more one-on-one services.
  • American Indian Council: Marshalltown includes the American Indian Council as one of its partners, providing employment services for the Misquake Tribe in eastern Iowa. This DoL funded employment and training program has thrived in the context of the One-Stop environment, expanding referral and work experience opportunities for tribe members while providing an additional resource to serve a key population in this largely rural region.
  • Project Self-Sufficiency Program: A pilot program in Whatcom County worked with young single mothers to provide child care, case management support, and skill training in a limited selection of fields to provide a "wrap-around" package of services and peer group support to this targeted population

The degree to which these individual elements contribute to job retention and long term self-sufficiency remains unclear. Nonetheless, it was clear in discussions with clients and former clients that many of these elements played a critical role in their positive experiences within the One-Stop environment.

Common Problems

Some of the common problems with One-Stop centers raised by participants in focus groups tended to focus on issues of location and transportation, child care funding, availability and scheduling, dealing with substance abuse, and assistance with job retention and ongoing education and training.  All of the sites visited are to some degree pioneers of the One-Stop concept within their state employment systems. In most cases, the design and emergence of the local One-Stop has more to do with local initiatives than with any program-wide redesign efforts initiated at the state level. In some instances, these model sites have been useful to state officials in structuring elements of their approach to One-Stop systems. In others, systems developed locally don't always match the designs subsequently developed by the state and create tensions around issues of local flexibility.

Each of the sites reviewed has struggled with a series of issues that makes each local One-Stop Center unique, including:

  • Breadth of Partners: The number of state and local public and community-based agencies involved as partners in the different One-Stop systems ranges from 4 (Bellingham) to 18 (Kenosha). While there are many similarities, this range is often a reflection of different local capacities and the unique roles that some institutions play in the local area.
  • Site and Service Integration: The level of integration of partners and services varies considerably, from integration by referral and coordination between multiple sites to the full integration of service teams at a single location.
  • Data Systems: Quality and design of data systems, including the ability to share client data via a common system, varies dramatically from site to site.
  • Work Requirements: Different states have significant differences in their work requirements for welfare recipients, with some requiring work search for all parents of children older than 12 weeks to others requiring work search only after the youngest child is 4 years old.
  • Training Focus: Different states provide different levels of resources for training efforts, either as part of the transition from welfare to work or as a supplement for improving skills after employment has been found. Connecting welfare recipients with training on an ongoing basis after finding employment appears to be a challenge for all One-Stop systems.

Institutional Factors

Several other institutional factors may contribute to the success or failure of a One-Stop, including:

  • Shared Systems Administration: Those One-Stop models that are highly integrated have typically developed a method of overhead charges to support shared systems, including everything from space and janitorial services to computer and data system capital costs and maintenance.
  • Technology: The importance of technology in the success of a One-Stop should not be underestimated. Easy to use, customer-friendly touch screen systems for labor market information and labor exchange are vital to encouraging the kind of self-service environment that allows case managers to focus their time and energies on those with the greatest needs.
  • Consolidated Budgets: Only Kenosha had anything that remotely resembled a consolidated budget statement that enabled partners to plan together for the full package of resources. Lack of consolidated budgets illustrates the fact that in all but the most integrated system, the partner agencies continue to operate on a collaborative basis rather than as an integrated system.
  • Multiple Collective Bargaining Units: In some sites, it was not uncommon for employees doing similar work, such as staffing the resource room, to be represented under different collective bargaining units. Most managers felt this was a manageable problem.
  • Wage Disparities: In most sites, there are considerable wage disparities between different agency personnel that did not appear to match differences in caseloads or difficulty of cases.
  • Learning Curve: Each of the sites reviewed is at a somewhat different level of development. The development of a One-Stop can require anywhere from 3 to 5 years to bring partners together and begin working through many of the coordination and joint operating challenges. It does not happen overnight, and even some of the best are still refining their approach after nearly 10 years.

Suggested Improvements

Suggestions for improving One-Stop models came from focus groups with management, staff, current and former participants, and participating employers. Their recommendations include:

  • Managers: Wanted to see more funding for specific skill training modules, and support for ongoing education and training after clients have found employment.
  • Staff: Would like to see greater recognition by state officials of the increasing difficulties of helping those still on TANF rolls as caseloads decline.
  • Current Participants: Want an effective reform of child support that includes mandatory work effort or job search by non-custodial parents. They also noted serious difficulties in obtaining part time or swing shift child care and child care for children with medical needs.
  • Former Participants: Were more appreciative of the work requirements; several argued for more flexibility on specific work rules and greater case manager discretion. They also focused on the need for ongoing support for transportation and child care, especially after normal working hours, if they were to have any hope of getting more education or training.
  • Employers: Would like a single point of contact for listing jobs; most were willing to train new hires but were concerned about job readiness.

Challenges in Reaching the Welfare Population


Not all One-Stop clients have the same abilities or employment needs, and by design, not all clients will receive the same services. The intent of the inverted pyramid model of One-Stop service delivery is to provide multiple points of access to a variety of services, beginning with easily accessed self-service opportunities and culminating with intensive, one-on-one services for clients with the greatest needs.

For the most part, the self-service job matching and education, training, and career planning systems seem to have been more than adequate to service the experienced labor force. However, there are several points at which TANF recipients may have difficulty gaining access to the employment and training services provided by One-Stop systems. First is the challenge of getting TANF recipients through the door, given that some are reluctant to participate on their own. Second, there may be issues of location and logistics and retention affected by system design. Third, there are issues about how well the services offered meet the needs of the clients. And finally, there are issues of follow-through once TANF recipients are placed in employment.

  • Engaging the System: One thing that became very clear during our focus groups is that mandatory work requirements are very important in getting many TANF recipients through the door. Frequently, the issue is not a reluctance to work, but a lack of self-esteem or self-confidence in their ability to juggle family and work challenges. Job readiness programs that break the challenges into discreet, achievable goals help open doors to new opportunities and overcome this reluctance.
  • Falling Through the Cracks: The fall-off between initial registration for TANF benefits and participation in job readiness or work-search activities can be quite considerable. For example, in Kenosha, managers estimate that this fall-off rate is as high as 50 percent. While many initial registrants will ultimately end up following through, evidence from Iowa suggests that these may be slightly older and better educated clients, with better employment prospects. Since none of these systems is perfect, some portion of this fall-off rate may be due to location and logistics of the system design. However, given that some of the highest fall-off rates reported were in some of the most integrated systems, it would be difficult to argue that this is a major factor.
  • Matching Services to Needs: It was our sense in talking with managers, staff, and clients, that those TANF clients best served by the One-Stop model tend to be persons who are capable of meeting their needs through self-service, or who would benefit from limited adult education, life skills training, job search workshops, and general motivational counseling. Those that may not fare as well tend to be those with no high school education and little or no work experience, especially when combined with substance abuse or physical or mental health problems. One-Stop systems are often ill-equipped to identify or address substance abuse or mental health problems. As TANF caseloads have fallen dramatically in some states, increasingly higher proportions of clients are "high needs" cases with multiple problems requiring higher levels of one-on-one assistance. Under these circumstances, traditional staffing ratios may be less appropriate, raising questions about how much depth of service One-Stops are expected to provide for clients with high needs.
  • Follow-Up and Lifelong Learning: Most of the sites reviewed were well accustomed to conducting follow-up surveys for Job Opportunities and Basic Skills (JOBS)(3)  clients 90-days or four months after exiting the program. However, few indicated that they conducted any systematic follow-ups to offer services for continuing training, education, or counseling on job conflicts and job retention. Generally, this lack of follow-up is due to the lack of funding and resources for making these contacts, or for providing the kinds of child care, transportation and training services and assistance necessary to help program completers move up from low-wage jobs to self-sufficiency.

The current pattern of One-Stop centers to provide welfare recipients with the minimum level of employment services necessary to move them from welfare to low-wage employment offers an optimum strategy for reducing caseloads during the strongest economy in several decades. However, even a relatively mild recession could force a serious reallocation of resources within many One-Stop centers once these employment opportunities evaporate. These centers might be better suited than the traditional "unemployment office" for handling high volumes of experienced workers via self-service job search tools. But if they are unable to move TANF recipients into employment, severe financial and caseload strains may result during an economic downturn, especially since the flow of federal funds will no longer be driven by changes in caseloads.

Occupations and Employers


Employer focus groups reflected a remarkable level of understanding of the complexities and challenges of recruiting and retaining a low-skilled labor force. For the most part, employers who participated were typical of this labor market, employing relatively large numbers of workers with very modest skills in firms with relatively few opportunities for serious training or advancement. Most of these employers expressed a genuine willingness to provide the limited training necessary for individuals ready to work, but frequently expressed frustration at the lack of such readiness, and the seeming lack of screening for this preparation by One-Stop personnel.

Most of the client focus groups reported very positive results from work experience activities, indicating that these positions frequently became permanent positions or offered real experience that could be used in obtaining permanent employment. Employer reactions tended to reflect the way in which the worker was treated -- employers who provide work experience workers serious work were most likely to be pleased with the results, while those treating it as "make work" often were not. Several employers, both public and private, reported hiring work experience workers on a permanent basis, often noting the loyalty and sense of responsibility these workers brought to their jobs.

Given the distribution of low-skill, entry-level jobs in today's economy and the narrow scope of education and training funding under most state welfare reforms, it appears that many of the One-Stop welfare-to-work programs tend to place their clients in a fairly limited set of typical occupations. In some cases, the following occupational paths are emphasized by design through specific training and employment agreements with large employers:

  • Certified Nurse Assistant: By far the most prevalent occupation we encountered in our focus groups was that of Certified Nurse Assistant (CNA), or in some cases, other health care services. This occupation was very commonly connected with a specific training regime connected to the One-Stop.
  • Clerical Support: At most sites, focus group participants indicated that they had employment in clerical support positions, frequently in partner agencies, both public and non-profit. In several cases, these workers had been placed in these positions as work experience slots and were later brought on as permanent employees.
  • Sorting and Packaging: Several of the employers, and some of the current participants, identified sorting and packaging employment activities in a variety of light manufacturing settings.
  • Light Manufacturing: A few light manufacturing employers reported positive experience in hiring former TANF workers. Generally these were persons with at least a high school education and some work experience.
  • Retail Trade: A couple of former participants had found placement in retail establishments -- some in Goodwill Industries type sheltered work environments, and others in stores like Wal-Mart.
  • Self-Employment: A few, generally male, former participants had started their own businesses (such as cleaning, landscaping, and appliance repair). Most of these workers also had at least a high school education and previous work experience. Generally these were self-motivated individuals. None of the sites we reviewed had programs designed to foster self-employment -- most felt this option would work for only a limited portion of TANF participants.

One employer that was present in at least three of the locations was Manpower, Inc. As a temporary employment agency, Manpower can often offer One-Stop clients a useful point of access to employment opportunities, and they frequently share their listings with the One-Stop employment services. However, they also tend to do more job readiness and skill screening than the One-Stop, and not all welfare-to-work clients may be deemed "job ready" by their standards.

Empirical Evidence of Success


Most analysts would agree that real success in moving welfare recipients to self-sufficiency should be measurable in terms of employment and wage outcomes. A review of administrative records from three of the five sites, and management tracking reports from a fourth, suggest that for the most part, these One-Stop models have been at least partially successful. However, these data also highlight some of the gaps and limitations in the One-Stop concept as it has been implemented so far.

  • Employment and Wage Outcomes: Based on limited data that varies from site to site, the employment and wage outcomes reported for a sample of welfare clients referred to a One-Stop center during a given 12-month period hovers between 40 percent and 50 percent, with wages typically averaging between $5.50 and $6.50 per hour. With hours averaging between 30 and 35 hours per week, these jobs are clearly dominated by entry level work and by no means could be considered sufficient to support a family without continued public assistance for food, health care, child care, and possibly housing. Employment outcomes tend to be somewhat better for clients with more education and fewer dependents who are young enough to be resilient in the job market. These clients tend to use fewer services and progress faster through the system
  • Matching Needs and Services: Welfare clients without a high school education, clients with large numbers of dependents, and clients who are 40 and older tend to have greater needs, use more services, take longer to progress through the system, and have less encouraging employment outcomes. While this information is not particularly new, the fact that One-Stop systems are tending to provide higher need clients with more services and assistance is encouraging, even if their employment outcomes are not entirely comparable with those of other clients.
  • Difficulties Facing One-Stops: The administrative data compiled also confirm some of the difficulties facing One-Stop systems in terms of addressing the needs for all subgroups of welfare clients. Non-compliance seems to range from 10 percent to 17 percent. High proportions of welfare clients continue to drop out after orientation, and length of participation and employment rates seem to suggest that some groups of welfare recipients are either slipping through the cracks or are not responding well to the services provided. For example, in two sites, ethnic and racial minority groups tended to have high proportions of cases receiving a single service, low average lengths of participation, and low employment rates and wages. Both of these cases involve only small samples of these subgroups, limiting our ability to generalize, but sufficient to raise cause for caution.

The variation in the characteristics of the populations served across sites illustrates the need for flexibility in defining services and designing service systems that respond to unique local needs. Differences in local economies are very important in understanding the types of work skills necessary to be successful, yet differences in education levels, age distribution, number of dependents, and racial/ethnic diversity also persist, requiring careful attention to unique local design issues.



1.  Note that our goal was to highlight promising practices in One-Stop Centers and therefore the sites we selected and the people interviewed should not be considered a random or representative sample.

2.  Milwaukee is a good example of the first of these circumstances, Boston the second, and Renton (Seattle metropolitan area) the third.

3.  JOBS was the parallel employment and training program for AFDC clients.

Low-Income Populations
Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF)