Serving the underserved in workforce development: A Q&A with Beth Weigensberg

Improving data in the field of workforce development is a necessary step to evaluating programs and replicating success. What does current data tell us about the populations served? What outcomes should we measure to ensure programs are meeting America’s workforce development needs?

Earlier this month, we convened an expert group of policy makers, practitioners and scholars to address this problem, along with other challenges in workforce development. Previously, we interviewed Kate Blosveren Kreamer on the need to strengthen bridges from school to work. Next up in our Q&A series is Beth Weigensberg, a researcher at Mathematica Policy Research.

Q: What important research questions remain unanswered in the area of workforce development?

A: Although there is increasingly more rigorous research to assess effectiveness of programs, I feel a missing piece is understanding how to replicate and scale-up effective strategies. Often times workforce development programs that are deemed effective in one place do not always succeed when implemented in another. Research that evaluates effectiveness of programs should assess the role of contextual factors (including organizational, leadership, community, and political factors) to identify what is needed to successfully implement, replicate, and scale successful programs.

Q: You mentioned that you often think about the unemployed populations that are harder to serve. Who are some of these underserved populations, and what workforce development programs work for them?

A: The workforce development field has an unfortunate history of “creaming”—programs selectively work with individuals most likely to succeed at finding employment, leaving those “harder-to-serve” individuals struggling to find assistance. Individuals that are often considered “hard-to-serve” include those who are homeless, disabled, formerly incarcerated, older workers, non-English speakers, low-income, and youth who are disconnected from school and employment. Increasing efforts to focus on these “harder-to-serve” populations include specialized targeted programs and strategies to help address the complex needs of these individuals, which often extend beyond skill development and finding a job. These specialized programs often provide additional support services to help address their complex needs, which can serve as additional barriers to obtaining and retaining employment.

Q: What improvements can be made to better measure success?

A: Intermediate measures of engagement and skill development would provide interim measures of progress, while the ultimate objectives are obviously employment and educational attainment. Ongoing evaluation on interim measures allows for earlier acknowledgment of achievement and identification of those struggling to progress. Assessing outcomes in ways that control for different populations or barriers to employment, such as using risk-adjusted methodologies, can help us evaluate workforce development programs in an equitable manner.

One of the biggest challenges in the field is ensuring we have valid and reliable data to accurately estimate outcomes. The data available to assess outcomes are usually limited by what is collected in management information systems, which are often developed to be responsive to reporting requirements of publically-funded programs. But these siloed data do not allow for comprehensive assessment of workforce development outcomes within a state, locality, or even within a community-based employment and training organization that relies on numerous funding sources. Efforts are needed to integrate data and assess standardized outcome measures across program and funding silos to allow for more comprehensive assessment of outcomes within the field.