Workforce Development Success Factors

Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago examined the workforce development system in Chicago to discover characteristics and practices common to successful programs. Researchers chose six community-based employment and training programs assisting unemployed or underemployed adults. What can we learn from Chicago?

Ten Principles for Successful Workforce Development

(1) Intake assessments determine applicants’ probability of success.

During the application process, intake assessments gather information about applicants’ demographics, education, skills, work experience, family and housing, use of public benefits, criminal history, and barriers such as homelessness, disability, or child care needs. With this information, organizations determine whether the program is appropriate for applicants’ needs and goals and whether applicants can successfully complete the program. Rather than stick with a one-size-fits-all approach, staff members then create unique strategies for completing the program and overcoming barriers, and tailor services to individual needs, maximizing benefits to participants and increasing the probability of program success.

(2) Comprehensive programs recognize participants face more challenges than just unemployment.

Beyond needing technical skills and job training, participants also may lack basic needs and face psychosocial difficulties, such as conflict management problems or mental health concerns. Programs that fail to recognize these additional challenges will not produce graduates capable of thriving in the workforce. Comprehensive programs often include additional services to enhance participant success and well-being, such as clothing, transportation, assistance with child care and health care, financial and tax counseling, and sessions on time management, conflict management, professionalism and workplace behavior. 

(3) Successful program prepare participants for sustainable job placements rather than simply finding employment.

Successful workforce development programs recognize participants have different career interests, skills, knowledge, and educational and professional backgrounds. Although all participants receive basic employment skills such as resume writing, staff members also work with individual participants to create unique employment plans that focus skill-training activities on particular industries, such as typing or equipment use. This method prepares participants for long-term sustainable employment in their chosen trade rather than simply helping them find employment.

(4) Flexibility allows programs to survive changing participant and employer needs while staying true to their mission.

Economic conditions change employer needs and the types of individuals served by the program. Successful programs track these changes and alter services accordingly to remain useful to both employers and participants. Additionally, rather than relying on only a few funding sources that may have strings attached or specified uses, successful organizations look for different and new sources of funds for flexibility in program direction and clients served. These organizations also remain committed to their missions and core competences rather than undertaking unfamiliar and unrelated activities.

 (5) Board members, leadership staff, and program staff are active and committed to the organization.

Successful organizations strategically select board members that will benefit the organization, such as local employers, community leaders and policy representatives. These individuals can offer resources such as expertise, policy influence and employment positions. Staff members are also vital to success, as they interact with clients and actually provide the services. Quality staff members of successful organizations are committed, motivated, and passionate, but maintain emotional distance and professionalism. Leaders do not micromanage staff, but do offer support and include them in decision-making. In successful organizations, most staff members remain for many years, and most leadership staff is recruited from within the organization rather than outside recruitment.

6) Funding realities should not limit strategic planning for future growth.

Each organization in the study understood it is a constant challenge to secure enough funding just to stay afloat. None, however, allowed funding concerns to limit their aspirations. These organizations strategically planned for future growth, either by broadening their scope or by expanding the services provided to current participants or increasing the quality of existing programs.

(7) Employers should be treated as clients with business needs that can be met by the organization, but also as partners.

The success of workforce development programs depends upon job availability, industry needs and market conditions. Successful organizations often dedicate staff members to working with employers to determine the skills and credentials needed today and in the future, and then evolve programs to meet those changing needs. In addition, successful organizations treat employers like partners, recruiting them to the board and encouraging them to be actively engaged within the organization by volunteering, assisting in teaching sessions, and offering specialized training.

(8) Organizations can better serve participants and employer-partners by collaborating with other workforce development programs.

Workforce development programs can provide more services collectively than individually. Participants can be referred to other organizations when the original program does not offer additional needed training or services. In addition, organizations unable to fulfill employer requirements often contact other organizations with qualified participants. This collaboration allows each organization to focus on its own core competencies and services without sacrificing client care or employer relationships. 

(9) Successful organizations have community partners.

Community partners may include schools, universities, churches, financial organizations and other support service providers, such as child care or health care providers. Similar to organizational collaboration, community partners provide additional services and assistance that would otherwise be unavailable to program participants. In addition, community partners facilitate networks between programs and employers, helping program participants find employment. Lastly, workforce development programs are focused on local employer needs and locate close to clients and employers as a matter of practicality.  

(10) Successful organizations engage in policy and advocacy efforts, often collectively.

Successful workforce development programs advocate for particular programs and the general field of workforce development at all three levels government, both individually and collectively. Primary goals include protecting current funding, attempting to influence future sources of funds, and protesting policies that constrain their programs. Advocacy efforts at promoting and protecting programs are enhanced with tangible evidence of program effectiveness.

Each of these principles is present within successful workforce development programs, despite difference in program services, client demographics, community contexts and funding.

Weigensberg, Elizabeth, Colleen Schlecht, Faith Laken, Robert George, Matthew Stagner, Peter Ballard, Jan De Coursey (2012). Inside the Black Box: What Makes Workforce Development Programs Successful? Chicago: Chapin Hall at the University of Chicago. Retrieved from: the Black Box_04_23_12_0.pdf