Purpose. Scholars and practitioners concur that for workforce development activities to benefit lower-earning job seekers, regional employers, training organizations and service organizations must be actively and consistently engaged with each other (Giloth, 2004; Meléndez, 2004). Wage-setting, liaison contact between new workers and supervisors, and input into the training curricula are a few potential areas of engagement. The current study examines how workforce development collaboratives can foster human and social capital development toward improving employment success (defined as higher incomes, non-wage benefits, and opportunities for advancement). It asks: (1) What were the employment outcomes for economically-disadvantaged job seekers of focused collaboration between regional workforce agencies, service organizations and employers? (2) How do these partnerships shape employment outcomes for lower-earning workers? (3) What factors may facilitate or impede the success of workforce development efforts?
Methods. The data come from a five-year ethnographic study of economic mobility among participants in a workforce demonstration program in five U.S. cities.* The research team gathered prospective and retrospective data (1998-2003) from twenty-five low-income families and about 1000 auxiliary contacts that included job training providers and employers. Direct and participant observation, in-depth interviews, shadowing and document review, together with administrative and census data, yielded new understanding about the dynamic ways that workforce development efforts can enhance job attainment and retention. Qualitative software facilitated data management and construction of narrative accounts. Triangulation through multiple researchers, respondents and analysts, and “member checking” (Padgett, 2008), helped to reduce bias and increase the credibility of the findings.
Results. In this research, the employment success of lower-earning workers was notably improved by regional workforce development/employer collaboratives. Post-training job wages increased 40% on average over pre-training job wages and job seekers accessed industries and occupations they couldn't access earlier. These outcomes were shaped by employer input into training curricula that focused human capital building on local industry sectors' needs. In the most well-developed collaboratives, this translated directly into hiring. Employment success was also shaped by the collaboratives' development of post-employment workplace supports, such as mentoring programs, career guidance and trouble-shooting consultation for supervisors. Such social capital-building activities were sometimes spearheaded by social workers. However, workers' employment continuity was imperiled when collaborations dissolved, did not incorporate critical community institutions, or were unable to modify deleterious workplace practices such as insufficient hours or erratic scheduling (Lambert & Henly, 2009). Mismatches between workforce development training and job seekers' career preferences also led to less successful employment outcomes.
Implications. Social workers play an important role in today's workforce development efforts, serving as liaisons between job training organizations and employers and holding job development positions in a wide variety of training sites (Iversen & Armstrong, 2006). The regional workforce development/employer collaboratives in this research suggest that combining human and social capital strategies can improve employment outcomes among vulnerable workers. The data here come from demonstration projects, however. Permanent change will require establishment of sustainable collaborations among firms, training institutions, social service organizations, policymakers and other vital community institutions.
*Funded by independent grants from the Annie E. Casey Foundation.