Even in the midst of a prolonged economic expansion with a low national unemployment rate, jobs are not always available and not everyone who wants work can find it. Both job availability and demographics vary markedly around the country, yielding diverse local populations wanting and/or needing work.
This analysis aims to deepen understanding of out-of-work Americans, and support local officials in their efforts to help these individuals find jobs. We provide a unique perspective on adults ages 25-64 who are out of work in each of 130 large cities and counties across the United States, using cluster analysis to segment the out-of-work population into distinct groups based on factors such as educational attainment, age, work history, disability, English language proficiency, and family status. We present detailed information on these groups accompanied by information on appropriate and effective workforce development programs in order to help local officials, funders, and other stakeholders develop, strengthen, or diversify strategies to connect their residents to employment.
Defining the out-of-work population
Cities and counties do not all fare equally in the global economy, nor do their residents. Local conditions and interventions play a pivotal role in connecting job seekers to employment opportunities, and most of the responsibility for executing on this goal rests with local officials and leaders in the public, private, and social sectors.
The 130 jurisdictions included in the analysis collectively account for nearly half (48 percent) of the nation’s population aged 25-64. The study jurisdictions include large cities with populations upwards of 1.5 million, such as Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Phoenix; mid-size cities such as Albuquerque, Milwaukee, Louisville, and Nashville; and high-density counties with populations over one million near the core of large metropolitan areas (Alameda, CA; Fulton County, GA). They also include lower-density counties with populations under one million (Montgomery County, OH; Anne Arundel County, MD), including some with rural characteristics (Lancaster County, PA; Fresno County, CA). Although they all pass the 500,000 population threshold, in other words, they show substantial variation in size and other characteristics.
Segmenting the out-of-work into groups based on shared characteristics
The question of what works best in workforce development is more usefully conceptualized as a narrower question: what works best for whom? While successful programs have common elements, they typically tailor key components—the intensity, length, and specific focus of services—to the needs and circumstances of the people they are serving.
Someone with less than a high school diploma needs a different educational program than someone who enrolled in college but dropped out without a credential. Someone with relatively steady work experience probably does not need an orientation to the culture of work as might someone with a sporadic work history; and factors such as limited English proficiency, child-care responsibilities, and criminal backgrounds are issues that programs must address to help participants successfully increase their skills, find a job, and chart a path to higher earnings.
We used cluster analysis to segment the out-of-work population into groups of individuals with similar attributes in order to better identify what kind of help they might need to find employment. We identified 828 clusters across the 130 study jurisdictions, which together roll up into 7 major groups.
Effective practices to connect out-of-work groups to employment
Broadly speaking, effective workforce programs offer training that aligns with regional labor market needs and provide guidance, counseling, and other appropriate supportive services to participants. We reviewed the research literature and identified eight approaches shown to be effective by formal evaluations, preferably with random assignment techniques in order to identify causality. These approaches disproportionately target people with lower levels of education, reflecting the general orientation of the field of workforce development.
While our focus on formally evaluated programs adds to our confidence in their effectiveness, it also reduces the number of programs we list. Because third-party evaluations are complicated and expensive, they are undertaken by a minority of programs. There are gaps in the research literature about how best to serve specific groups, such as older individuals, the long-term unemployed, and people with very low literacy and English language skills. This is not to say that there is no practical knowledge base about how to serve these groups, but rather that the field would benefit from a stronger emphasis on documenting and disseminating effective practices. In short, our list should be viewed as a point of departure, not a comprehensive inventory.
Click or tap on any of the blue dots below to view more information about these programs.
Explore the seven major out-of-work groups
The programs listed as effective for each group are meant as guidelines. Not every program is a good fit for every member of a given group. For instance, a program matched to a group including both people with and without a high school diploma may be best suited for high school graduates. Or a program may require a threshold of literacy and math skills that not everyone may have, even if they are in a group with some post-secondary education.
Explore the out-of-work population in the 130 study jurisdictions