Is the Program Engaging Participants Enough for Them to Experience Supportive Relationships?

Strong case management, coaching and peer interactions can help to address the isolation or self-confidence issues that can hinder participants’ success. Participants who feel a strong sense of connection with and support from program staff, other participants and program partners are more likely to complete the program, succeed in employment and continue to engage with the program afterwards. These relationships can establish a foundation of trust and shared vision that helps participants persist while navigating the challenges of building new skills, finding employment and growing on the job. On the program side, strong relationships help staff better understand how a participant is really doing and whether there are specific personal issues or obstacles that need to be addressed.

Are Participants Getting Enough Opportunities to Experience Supportive Relationships?

While supportive program relationships alone are not enough for programs to achieve strong workforce outcomes, they are an essential ingredient. There are a variety of ways that effective workforce programs enable participants to experience the support they need:

  • Making sure that at least one staff person—usually a case manager or coach—is regularly interacting with each participant on a more personal level, becoming familiar with participants’ goals and challenges, monitoring issues, holding accountability and celebrating progress in the program, and offering help as needed.
  • Persistent follow-up, using multiple approaches to contact and re-engage participants during various components of the program, while communicating a long-term commitment to their success. 
  • Shared “community-building” events with staff and other participants, built in as part of the program curriculum. These might look like daily or weekly motivational events to celebrate accomplishments and encourage each other’s persistence, meals or open houses for participants and their families, peer support groups to discuss common issues like parenting or budgeting, or regular gatherings of alumni to share progress on the job and challenges. 
  • Opportunities to work in teams on project-related work, planning program events or doing community service—giving participants the chance to demonstrate leadership and competence while developing a deeper connection with peers. 
  • Linking participants to mentors or “buddies” where possible and appropriate. Pairing participants with volunteer professionals, including program alumni, can provide participants with structured opportunities for individualized support as well as valuable information about the workplace.  Having a “buddy system” within the program creates a way for participants to bond with one to two other participants and work specifically to support each other’s attendance and success. 
  • Seeking program feedback on a regular basis, including suggestions for additional assistance or support that would be helpful. This allows participants to take more responsibility for their experience in partnership with staff.

In implementing these kinds of activities, it is important to remember that workforce programs must maintain a careful balance--providing a supportive environment for participants while at the same time maintaining the expectations of the workplace participants seek to enter. Supportive coaching will not always feel comfortable to participants, but may provide the “tough love” sometimes needed for participants to make important behavior changes.

Assess the Frequency and Quality of Participant Connections

It is important for staff to agree on clear expectations for how frequently a designated case manager or coach will have actual contact with participants during various segments of the program, e.g., at least weekly or biweekly during the training component, twice a week during job search, monthly after three months on the job, etc. Information from these contacts should be recorded in a way that is accessible for other staff or shared in regular staff meetings about participant progress. Some programs also include a “rating” they use for each interaction with participants, e.g., rating the participant’s level of engagement as high, medium or low.  Even if there are minimum expectations for the degree of staff-participant interaction, a “triage” approach is essential.  Some participants will need much more frequent interactions during times of crisis.  

As programs monitor whether they are providing opportunities for participants to connect with others, it is also important to assess whether participants actually experience being supported by the program. This can happen verbally through regular check-ins during the program or focus groups afterwards —or it can be part of an anonymous feedback survey that participants complete.  

In any case, staff review of the results of this feedback can help identify where changes are needed to improve the frequency and quality of connections with participants. This is critical to participants’ completing the program and succeeding in the face of job search challenges.  A strong connection is even more important to make it likely that participants will stay in contact and accomplish retention success during the first year on the job.

Surveys / Assessments

 

Resources Cited

Fraker, T.,Black, A., Broadus, J., Mamun, A., Manno, M., Martinez, J., McRoberts, R., Rangarajan, A., and Reed, D. (2011). The Social Security Administration’s Youth Transition Demonstration Projects: Interim Report on the City University of New York's Project. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. 

Hendra, R., Dillman, K., Hamilton, G., Lundquist, E., Martinson, K., and Wavelet, M. (2010). The Employment Retention and Advancement Project. How Effective Are Different Approaches Aiming to Increase Employment Retention and Advancement?: Final Impacts for Twelve Models. New York: MDRC.

Kemple, J., and Willner, C. (2008). Career Academies: Long-Term Impacts on Labor Market Outcomes, Educational Attainment and Transitions to Adulthood. New York: MDRC.

Millenky, M., Bloom, D., Muller-Ravett, S., and Broadus, J. (2011) Staying on Course: Three-Year Results of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Evaluation. New York: MDRC.

Martin, N., and Halperin, S. (2006) Whatever It Takes: How Twelve Communities are Reconnecting Out-of-School Youth. Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Kelly, J.S., Wavelet, M., Rowser, S., Molina, F., and Berin, D. (2004). Practical Tips and Tools to Strengthen Your ERA Program: A Technical Assistance Guide for the Employment Retention and Advancement Project. New York: MDRC. Retrieved 2/6/12 from US Department of Health and Human Services.