Are You Enrolling the People Who Can Best Benefit from Your Program?

Workforce development programs serve diverse populations and target a variety of industries or occupations. Regardless of program characteristics, however, participants are more likely to stay engaged and achieve outcomes when their skills, interests and expectations are a good fit with the program’s services. 

Some programs may not have much control over the participants they serve (e.g., participation is mandated by the court system), in which case they should track participant characteristics to understand the needs of those they serve and adapt services accordingly. This section is more focused on programs with some degree of choice in whom they enroll from a targeted population. While all programs need to adapt to participant needs, to make good use of resources and optimize outcomes, programs should recruit and enroll participants who are most ready and willing to engage in services at that time.

Define and Track Enrollment Criteria

The first step is to define the criteria you will use to discern whether an individual is likely to take advantage of and benefit substantially from your program’s services. Program application and assessment tools must track these criteria. Enrollment criteria include:

  • General program criteria such as meeting low-income guidelines, age requirements or being drug-free, which may be tracked in intake materials. 
  • Basic occupational expectations like having a GED (if the program does not offer those services internally), meeting minimum reading or math skill levels, or possessing specific physical capabilities. We have included information on the Test of Adult Basic Education (TABE), one tool often used to measure math and reading skills.
  • Motivation and aptitude, including a strong commitment to do the work to find employment or a high interest level in specific occupations. While motivation can be assessed through interview questions about why an applicant is interested, it is also helpful to have a recruitment process where applicants need to return more than once and follow through on specific requests.* Career interest and aptitude can be assessed through assessment tools like CareerZones, an online assessment.
  • Availability to participate during times of program activities, with a plan for transportation to the program or work site and for childcare if needed. 
  • Alignment with expectations of other city agencies, e.g., making sure there is permission to participate from a parole agency or that an applicant receiving TANF assistance is meeting those requirements.

These criteria may evolve over time. By analyzing historical data, it is possible to understand the primary reasons participants have dropped out of the program in the past and incorporate these factors into the enrollment criteria or interview questions. At any one point in time, however, agreed-upon criteria should be clear to staff, so the program can better manage recruitment and enroll participants who meet those criteria. 

* There is a trade-off associated with having several steps in the enrollment process, as the number of potential enrollees will likely diminish each time programs ask individuals to return prior to enrollment. Programs will need to find the right balance between recruiting the most motivated candidates and recruiting a sufficient number of participants to meet program goals.  The key is having extensive outreach targeted toward organizations and locations most likely to produce appropriate applicants.

Manage Enrollment and Make Improvements as Needed 

While it is the responsibility of staff to enroll into the program participants who meet enrollment criteria, it is equally important that managers analyze data at the program level and use it to manage performance of the program as a whole. Review actively whether participants meet enrollment criteria. This may be done by reviewing regularly aggregate data points such as GED or total TABE score of all enrolled participants, if applicable. If having a GED or a particular TABE score is a criterion for enrollment, for example, no participants should be enrolled without meeting the criterion unless there are significant reasons for exception. 

If your program is enrolling a substantial number of participants who do not meet criteria, those participants are less likely to benefit, and aggregate outcomes are likely to be poorer. Investigate the reasons why this is happening. Do staff disagree with the criteria? Is the pool of qualified applicants too small to meet enrollment target numbers? Do marketing, referral and recruitment processes need to be improved? 

It is also important to look at enrollment to program-completion ratios, assuming “completion” is defined as having achieved specified meaningful gains in skill level, knowledge or behaviors. If the enrollment to program-completion ratio is high, the enrollment criteria are working well. If the ratio is low, investigate possible reasons and adjust your enrollment criteria and/or recruitment strategies.

Surveys / Assessments


Resources Cited

Blank, S., and Wharton-Fields, D. (2008). A How-to-Guide: Helping Public Housing Residents Find and Keep Jobs. A guide for Practitioners Based on the Jobs-Plus Demonstration. New York: MDRC.

Maguire, S., Freely, J., Clymer, C., Conway, M., and Schwartz, D. (2010). Tuning In to Local Labor Markets: Findings from the Sectoral Employment Impact Study. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures. 

Spaulding, S., Baldwin Grossman, J., and Wallace, D. (2009). Working Dads: Final Report on the Fathers at Work Initiative. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures. 

Additional Resources

New York State Career Zone. 2011. Assess Yourself. Albany, NY: New York State Department of Labor. Retrieved 12/9/11 at