Students in the culinary arts program at a technical college in Los Angeles. Fred Prouser/Reuters

Help with navigating everyday challenges—like housing, transportation, and child care—can be key to completing job training, a new report finds.

Of the all the people who begin some form of job training each year, many leave without finishing it. Life gets in the way: Often, a lack of money, reliable transportation, or child care poses a hurdle, or the logistics of fitting classes around work interfere. One recent analysis found that among adults who participated in certain training programs, about three in ten who left did not complete the program.

A new report by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR), a Washington, D.C. think tank, presents evidence that access to supportive services helps unemployed and underemployed people complete job and skills training.

Based on a national survey, the report details how social supports—many of which don’t seem to have a direct relationship to finding a job—can in fact be crucial for participants’ overall success.

(IWPR)

Last year, IWPR surveyed administrators from 168 training programs around the country (in 41 states and D.C.). Just under half of the responses came from community and technical colleges; most of the rest were from nonprofits that offer job training, vocational schools, apprenticeships, and Job Corps programs. Their trainees were mainly preparing for jobs in the administrative and clerical, health science, building and construction, and manufacturing sectors.

Researchers found some marked differences in the obstacles that keep men and women off the career path. Housing assistance and emergency cash represent the greatest unmet needs for men, whereas women are most commonly hindered by their family caregiving responsibilities. Men have more need for mental-health and substance-abuse counseling, according to administrators, and women for domestic-violence services.

(IWPR)

The report looks at the services already provided by various types of job programs. Financial education and counseling is the number-one service they offer directly (73 percent of programs offer it), followed by case management and support groups. One reason these services are more common? They don’t require the specialized expertise and facilities that, say, operating a child-care center does.

There are other differences. Programs at community or technical colleges are fairly likely to host support groups (58 percent) and give some form of transportation help, like a bus pass (48 percent), but tend not to provide case management or help finding clothing, which other organizations emphasize (73 percent and 63 percent offer these services, respectively).

The survey found that shorter programs generally provide more services and have better completion rates. Not surprisingly, programs that serve a larger share of low-income individuals reported a higher percentage receiving help. Even so, for most services, a majority of administrators said less than half of participants used them.  

The lead author Cynthia Hess, IWPR’s associate director of research, says the most important takeaway is that “there’s a need to give attention to [these] key unmet services; they are not as on the radar as they need to be.”

It’s not from a lack of enthusiasm among program leaders. Around 55 percent of surveyed organizations want to offer help with child care, while 47 percent would give housing assistance, and 46 percent would broaden access to mental-health counseling. In total, 81 percent of administrators said their programs would see higher success rates if they were better able to meet the needs of trainees.

Some respondents cited individual participants’ stories. One recalled a women who was “living out of her car with two young children [and] entered our 12 week [full-time] intensive program. Our partners got her child care and eventually housing. She completed the program and is an apprentice earning $28 per hour. She is continuing her education and will soon have her associate’s degree.”

(IWPR)

But two-thirds of respondents said they won’t be able to expand support—budgetary constraints simply don’t allow it. The biggest barrier remains the cost-prohibitive nature of these services, like hiring licensed child-care workers and mental-health counselors.

Hess says incorporating more social services into job training should become a policy priority. Administrators can tap into a broad range of assistance, she says, by building partnerships with existing community organizations—many of which are equipped either to provide direct support or connect participants to agencies that can do so.

Interestingly, referrals to close partners seem to lead to higher completion rates than those to organizations that are more distantly linked, suggesting that strong partnerships are key.

“Training providers can also seek out areas of specialization among [partners], such as which are best equipped to provide clothing or shoes or mental health counseling in a particular location,“ Hess and her co-authors write.

One of the report’s core recommendations is for federal and state policymakers to draw on funds from the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 and on states’ Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) employment and training funding, which IWPR describes as underutilized.

Though job creation is talked up every election cycle, part of getting Americans to work is overcoming their everyday barriers. A full 97 percent of respondents in the IWPR survey said they’ve seen a clear and tangible difference in completion rates when participants can tap into support.

“[Providing supportive services] is a slog,” one said. “It’s a lot of hard work. It costs a lot. But it’s essential.”

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