How to Help More Americans Get Jobs and Earn More: The WIA Gold Standard Evaluation

Tumultuous events during the late 1920s and 1940s spurred some of the most important programs to train unemployed and underemployed Americans. Since then, public policy in the U.S. has explored ways to “improve the quality of the workforce, reduce welfare dependency, and enhance the productivity and competitiveness of the nation.”

Between 1998 and 2014, the primary vehicle for supplying employment and training assistance to disadvantaged workers in the U.S. was the Workforce Investment Act (WIA). In 2008, the Department of Labor wisely undertook the WIA Adult and Dislocated Worker Gold Standard Evaluation to measure how much the largest programs funded by WIA helped participants increase their employment and earnings.

Initial findings of the study — which examined effects after 15 months for both intensive job placement assistance and skill training — now are available. They provide a gold-standard level of evidence because they are based on a randomized study design carried out in a representative set of locations around the nation. The findings can be viewed as a report card on the short-run effectiveness of the WIA programs.

Career Planning and Job Search Help Proves to be Valuable

The study found that core services plus intensive services – the latter of which includes career planning and job search assistance – led to higher earnings in the fifth calendar quarter after study enrollment than core services alone, such as resource rooms and workshops. Adding occupational training to core plus intensive services did not further increase earnings.

And although WIA programs have been replaced by programs funded by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, the gold standard data remain relevant. For example, these data also can be used to investigate how to better provide employment and training assistance. Published information from the study only helps move us a little ways toward more effective services. The finding that core plus intensive services produced higher earnings one year after program enrollment compared to core services alone suggests broadening the availability of the services that distinguish these two program models: one-on-one time with employment program staff, development of career and service plans, and various workshops and counseling available only through the intensive services channel.

However, these results do not necessarily suggest that the core-services-only approach provided by WIA be phased out. The study’s design does not show how core services compare to no WIA assistance. Unlike many randomized social experiments, this one did not include an unserved control group. This is a topic that remains salient with the new WIOA program: Does access to online information about careers and employment opportunities – the central core services – help disadvantaged workers at all? Or is something more potent needed to make any progress?

Job Training Alone Did Not Boost Short-Term Earnings

A third service type studied in the evaluation — job training — may do the most to assist disadvantaged workers in the long run. Job training did not boost earnings over the initial 15-month period, perhaps because not enough time had elapsed for movement out of the classroom and into the labor force to yield benefits. And even if job training can effectively raise earnings over the longer run, training is comparatively expensive. Hence, the evaluation’s final report — covering 30 months and providing a benefit-cost analysis — will have to show strong earnings gains to make training cost-effective.

It is a story that warrants attention and will continue to unfold. Other training impact research is producing findings, including the Green Jobs and Health Care Impact Study, the Health Profession Opportunity Grants Impact Study, and the Pathways for Advancing Careers and Education Evaluation. For millions of unemployed and underemployed Americans, the story’s conclusion may have profound implications for their economic well-being. 
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