Mon, Jul

“The Hard To Employ”: Do People Ever Change?


CALIFORNIA EMPLOYMENT - Do people ever change?

It’s a question professionals in the job training field have been asking over the past five decades, especially in regard to the unemployed workers referred to in the 1970s as the “hard-to-employ”. It’s a question that is being asked today, in Congressional discussions over the reauthorization of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), and direction of America’s job training system.

In 1979, when I started in job training, the “hard-to-employ” was the term then used by practitioners and employment researchers to describe a set of groups identified with the rising government benefit rolls and crime: welfare recipients, ex-offenders, out of school unemployed youth, and ex-addicts. Within these groups, some workers lacked vocational skills or basic literacy skills that made job placement difficult. Mainly, though, these workers were defined at the time by behaviors: inability to get to work regularly and on time, inability to manage issues in their personal lives that got in the way of the job, inability to follow work protocols. The term became a shorthand for the individuals who, in the words of a blue ribbon committee on the hard-to-employ in 1980, “have become a considerable burden to themselves and the public.”

Integrating these workers into jobs is one of the main goals of the WIOA reauthorization. But how to do so? Much of the WIOA discussion is focusing on longer term training and certifications for these workers prior to job placement. Yet in terms of fostering behaviors for job success, a different approach offers greater promise: direct job placement with high-touch supports, and subsequent skills upgrading. Workers are encouraged to build a track record in entry level jobs, and employers encouraged and incentivized to invest in these workers, with skills upgrading and advancement opportunities. Let’s briefly explain.

Behavioral change that enables individuals who have not had success in jobs to find such success is a complex, multifaceted process. Such behavioral change most often comes from influences outside of government training programs.

This behavioral change can come from the influence of a new mentor/teacher/friend, or an effective mental health/substance abuse intervention. It can come through joining a religious or spiritual movement.

Beyond these influences, often it comes through the process of aging and greater maturity.

A few weeks ago walking in San Francisco’s Union Square, I ran into a participant in the job training program, the San Francisco Renaissance Center, that I was part of in the 1980s. After not holding a steady job in his twenties, he has been employed steadily for the past thirty years in building set up and security positions with the San Francisco Convention Center and Union Square Business District. What brought change in his work behavior was neither the Renaissance Center nor any other training program. His work behavior changed as he aged and matured. So too other Renaissance Center participants settled into jobs on their own as they aged into their thirties and beyond.

A well-structured job training program, though, can be an influence for behavioral change and hastening integration into a more steady job world. Experience suggests that the WIOA authorization focus on the following three strategies:

The power of job placement and the “work first” approach: One of the most important insights on behavioral change has come from Peter Cove, who in 1984, with his wife Dr. Lee Bowes, founded America Works. Inspired by President Johnson’s call to end poverty, Cove in 1965 had dropped out of graduate school and taken a job with the War on Poverty oversight agency in New York. Within a few years, though, he began to lose faith in the welfare and social service approaches and the flow of money without any accountability.

Cove turned to the job training field and went to work in the early 1970s at the Manhattan office of Wildcat Services Corporation. He would later recall, “At Wildcat we showed that the best way to get clients off welfare was to get them paid work immediately, rather than enroll them in training and education programs. I saw with my own eyes the value of work—any kind of paid work—in reducing welfare dependency and attacking poverty. I learned that if we helped welfare clients get jobs, even entry level jobs, they would then attend to their other needs. By contrast if the government gave them money and other benefits they were likely to remain dependent.”

Cove and his wife Dr. Lee Bowes launched America Works with their own funds, and built on the Wildcat results. They emphasized a “work first” behavioral approach: once people are placed in jobs they often find ways on their own to address other “static” or challenges in their lives. “When some mothers on welfare came to us they often explained that they could not work because they had no day care. We would send them on a job interview, and when the company wanted to hire them, miraculously they found a grandmother or daycare center.”

America Works has grown to a nationwide organization, serving 20,000 clients annually. It accompanies job placements with a range of counseling and case management supports for retention. It encourages skills upgrading and skills certifications for advancement. But its theory of behavioral change is centered on the power of the job placement.

Though America Works is among the largest of the “work first” workforce intermediaries, it is by no means the only one. The strategy is increasingly being adopted by other intermediaries, sometimes with variations through the growing apprenticeship movement and creative uses of transitional jobs.

The craft of the job counselor and the high-touch needed: I’ve written from time to time about job counselors who are true craft persons in their roles in assisting the hard-to-employ, including Amy Ruddell, a job counselor in Sacramento, who works in job placement for the homeless. She has been in the field for 34 years, and developed strong ties with local employers, and a willingness and ability to sell her clients to employers. She also has the effective mix of empathy, enthusiasm, and straight talk, to be the cheerleader and coach that her clients need for their transitions into jobs.

When I wrote about Amy in early 2022, she had just completed a project cycle of 30 homeless participants, among whom 19 had been placed in entry level jobs. Since then, Amy has continued to regularly send participant updates. Today around a third of the participants placed in 2022 are back to being unemployed. The others, though, are still employed—though several have changed employers one or two times.

Amy provides the high-touch supports required for placement and re-placement. She checks in regularly with the participant and employer, and seeks to resolve job issues that arise. If there is no resolution, she will assist the participant in finding another job. She is not a nine-to-five counselor, and she does not give up easily on her clients.

The high-touch strategy is also finding greater adoption in the workforce field, as represented by MDRC’s Individual Placement and Support model and its growing Center for Applied Behavioral Science.

3. Advancement from entry level jobs: In the 1970s and 1980s, the welfare rights groups would argue that welfare recipients and other workers on government benefits should not be expected to take low-wage, entry-level jobs. They were entitled to “quality jobs”. The result in most cases was that the workers obtained no jobs at all.

One of the first principles of job placement is that it is always easier to get a job if you have a job. Also, it is easier to navigate the job world and advance into a better position if you have a job, even an entry level job. The next job training system should encourage workers, with limited job backgrounds, to build a record in an entry level job, and seek out opportunities to advance. It should find ways to encourage and assist employers to provide such opportunities and invest in their entry level workers who perform well. In the post-pandemic economy, employers are finding just how hard it is to find committed employees in entry level positions.

Recent research by Burning Glass Institute points to the advancement opportunities increasingly available for entry level workers at America’s major companies. One challenge for the job training system going forward is how to expand these opportunities in mid-size and smaller firms.


Still, How Little We Know of Behavioral Change and Fitting Into the Job World

Our understanding of behavioral change is still primitive, in regards to the job world, as in other areas of life. Throughout the past five decades, job training practitioners and researchers have looked to the ascendant behavioral sciences for answers on integrating the “hard to employ” into jobs, but the answers have been scarce. If anything, during this same time, the neurosciences have been showing how much of behavior is linked to brain structure, and not easily subject to the mainstream behavioral interventions.

But these past five decades have also shown the power of getting and holding a job in stimulating behavioral change—at least for a portion of the “hard to employ”. This power should be at the center of WIOA reauthorization.

(Michael Bernick served as California Employment Development Department director, and today is Counsel with the international law firm of Duane Morris LLP, a Milken Institute Fellow and Fellow with Burning Glass Institute, and research director with the California Workforce  Association. My newest book is The Autism Full Employment Act (2021). This article first published in Forbes.com.)