Are Participants Receiving Services That Address Obstacles to Employment?

Many participants come to workforce development programs needing to address personal issues that could be obstacles to regular program attendance as well as obtaining or maintaining employment. Common needs include:

  • Reliable childcare (and a back-up plan for when a child is ill)
  • Connections for good services for children with special needs
  • Reliable transportation
  • Professional clothing for interviews and the workplace
  • Stable housing
  • Emergency services (e.g., food, rent or utility assistance)
  • Substance abuse prevention and/or recovery services
  • Physical or mental health services
  • Domestic violence services
  • Legal services (e.g., understanding or changing arrest and conviction records)
  • Financial services around bankruptcy or credit issues

For participants to be successful, programs need to help them address these obstacles by connecting them with other community resources that specialize in these areas and may be available at no or low cost. While the difficulty of addressing different types of needs varies greatly, programs should prioritize those that are most urgent to address and connect participants with assistance or resources. By doing so, programs increase the likelihood that participants will complete program activities and accomplish job placement and retention outcomes. 

Monitor Obstacles, Referrals and Results

To know if participants are receiving the services they need to address personal obstacles, programs need to track three things:

1) What specific obstacles need to be addressed? In some cases, most participants will have a similar need—such as professional clothing or transportation cost assistance—and programs can negotiate partnerships that make services available for the group as a whole. In most cases, however, it is important to use the program application and orientation process to learn as much as you can about potential issues such as convictions or a prior history of substance abuse. Other opportunities for conversation will come when participants are absent or tardy, or if they seem distracted during the program. Participants may be reluctant to share certain information until they have stronger relationships with program staff, so it is important to ask about it in a supportive, nonjudgmental way that stresses how the information will help you best support their success. (See [link to Supportive Relationships section] on building supportive relationships with participants.) It is also critical to agree on how this information will be shared with other staff while maintaining necessary confidentiality, so that staff can all work effectively with the participant. 

 2) What services or referrals have been provided? To best monitor how obstacles are being addressed, programs should track these things:

  • The date of any support service they provide (e.g., transit assistance) or referral of a participant to an outside agency partner.
  • The name of the outside agency and a contact person, if applicable.
  • Whether the participant and agency made a connection (through phone call, visit, etc.). 
  • The date services were received (or are scheduled to begin).

In making outside referrals, it is useful to keep these things in mind: 

  • Refer participants to community resource organizations with whom you have a history of successful partnership.
  • Agree on clear expectations about what they will do and what they need from you in advance. 
  • Have a specific contact person who will make sure there is consistent assistance to your participants and will give you appropriate updates on their progress or issues. 
  • Make sure you are nurturing your agencies’ professional relationship through face-to-face meetings and ongoing communication about successes and challenges.

3) Did the service or referral address the participant’s need?  Programs should follow up with participants (and community partners as needed) within one to two weeks of referral around these questions:

  • What was the outcome or result of the service? 
  • If the obstacle is short-term or urgent, has it been addressed?
  • If the obstacle is more long-term (e.g., a housing issue), has sufficient progress been made? 
  • Is the participant satisfied with the quality of the service they received? If not, why not?  
  • Who else needs this information?
  • What are the next steps? Who needs to take them?  

The information about obstacles or community resource providers will be far more useful if it is “codified” in some sort of standard way (e.g., through drop down menus or checkboxes) so that it can be aggregated later into meaningful reports. This can be recorded in a database, spreadsheet or case notes.

A sample of how these items can be tracked in a spreadsheet is on this site, although the information will be more useful if tracked in a database that could produce more flexible reports.

Assess Where More Attention Is Needed

Where possible, use spreadsheets or database reports to look at trends in your data about obstacles to employment and to identify ways your staff might better manage the brokering of services to address participant needs. Questions to ask include:

  • What obstacles most frequently need addressing? Where do you see increases or decreases from past years—why might that be? What does that tell you about services you may want to integrate in-house or new partnerships that need to be developed?
  • How many referrals have not resulted in services being provided? Why?
  • Which participants or service providers tend to need additional contacts to ensure that they follow up on a referral?
  • For various obstacles, what is the percentage of referrals that result in the obstacle being resolved (or satisfactory progress being made)?
  • Which community service providers are most effective at helping participants resolve obstacles? Which might need more relationship building so that they better understand your program’s needs?


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.

Koralek, R., Johnson, H., Ratcliffe, C., and Vericker, T. (2010) Assisting Newcomers Through Employment and Support Services: An Evaluation of the New American Centers Demonstration Project in Arkansas and Iowa. Washington, DC: The Urban Institute.

Miller, J., and Molina, F. (2004). Building Bridges to Self-Sufficiency: Improving Services for Low-Income Working Families. New York: MDRC.

Molina, F., and Howard, C. (2003). Final Report on the Neighborhood Jobs Initiative: Lessons and Implications for Future Community Employment Initiatives. New York: MDRC.