Society for Social Work and Research

Sixteenth Annual Conference Research That Makes A Difference: Advancing Practice and Shaping Public Policy
11-15 January 2012 I Grand Hyatt Washington I Washington, DC

17131 Inside the Black Box: Identifying and Measuring Individual, Organizational, and Contextual Factors of Successful Workforce Development Programs

Saturday, January 14, 2012: 11:00 AM
Wilson (Grand Hyatt Washington)
* noted as presenting author
Elizabeth Weigensberg, PhD, Senior Researcher, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Jan DeCoursey, AM, Senior Research Specialist, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Colleen Schlecht, Project Associate, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Peter Ballard, Researcher, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Matthew Stagner, PhD, Executive Director, Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Robert Goerge, Research Fellow, Chapin Hall Center at the University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
Understanding which workforce development programs are successful in regard to helping participants develop skills and achieve employment is critical, especially during a time of economic hardship with high levels of unemployment. However, assessing workforce program outcomes is only the first step. Policymakers, program administrators, and practitioners want to know what is inside the black box of workforce development programs - knowing how and why programs are successful at helping participants achieve employment. Existing research is limited in that most focus on individual characteristics and achievement of employment outcomes, but do not adequately address how program processes or contextual factors may contribute to positive outcomes.

The purpose of this study is to develop a conceptual understanding that answers the questions of why and how workforce development programs are successful, by identifying key individual, organizational, and contextual factors related to achieving positive employment outcomes. The study assesses the feasibility of measuring these factors with existing or new data collection efforts.

This study used qualitative research methods involving site visits with 6 workforce organizations, where each site visit included 2 to 3 interviews with program directors and staff, field observations, and document review.

Results show numerous individual, organizational, and contextual factors are related to achieving successful employment outcomes among programs in our sample. All of the programs emphasize the importance of addressing participants' psychosocial and financial needs, in addition to assisting individuals with their job search and skill development needs. Program structure and funding are also important factors. Specifically, many programs purposefully diversify their funding to minimize reliance on public funding, allowing them increased flexibility in terms of how they serve clients. Also, social enterprise is a common way programs create an employment experience for program participants, but it also serves as a revenue source to support their operations. Programs are also creative in regard to engaging and maintaining relationships with employers, which are crucial to their success. In addition, all of the programs embody a culture focused on data and outcomes, looking beyond mandated outcomes, to understand at how they achieve their own goals and learn how to better serve participants.

Researcher also assessed how these factors are quantified or measured for program monitoring purposes and for future research. Although the administrative case management data provides a valuable data source for understanding participant characteristics and services, existing data systems do not have the ability to collect information about most process, organizational, and other contextual factors. Therefore, alternative means of collecting and tracking these factors are needed, such as surveys, interviews, or internal process reviews.

The development of a conceptual understanding of what is inside the black box of workforce programs is useful for policymakers and practitioners when making decisions about what factors to consider or practices to adopt when seeking to improve workforce development services. Furthermore, this research helps to improve evaluation of workforce development programs, specifically in regard to knowing what context and process factors to include in research and what data collection is needed to measure these factors.

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