Although program administrators confirm that supportive services must supplement skills training, budget constraints often leave participants with unmet needs.
Workforce development programs offer much-needed skills training to un- and under-employed Americans. Many such individuals also face personal challenges that prevent them from completing their training. Workforce professionals have long asserted that supportive services are necessary for long term success. To date, few studies have assessed which services are most needed, or evaluated the impact of such supports on trainees’ performance.
In the spring of 2016, IWPR undertook a major survey of program administrators to help fill this gap in the literature. The responses came from administrators at 168 job training programs across 41 states and the District of Columbia. The programs represented every region of the country and operated in urban, suburban, rural, and a mix of community types. Nearly 60 percent of the programs served mostly female trainees; roughly 40 percent trained mostly men. Programs most commonly trained participants for jobs in administrative and clerical work, health science, building and construction trades, and manufacturing.
Whatever the location, size, demographics, or other characteristics of their program, virtually every administrator agreed that supportive services were critical to job training success. Only one in five administrators, however, thought they were meeting their clients’ support needs well. Administrators most commonly attributed the shortfall in services to a lack of funding. Though 99 percent of program officials wanted to provide more supportive services, only about one-third said they were likely to expand their supports in the near future.
What did administrators see as the most common barriers to trainees’ success?
The survey revealed that certain challenges were particularly likely to prevent participants from completing their program. Administrators most often identified trainees’ financial difficulties (59 percent), followed by inadequate child care (53 percent). Other common obstacles to completion, according to program officials, were work hours or scheduling conflicts (45 percent), family care-giving responsibilities (43 percent), personal or family health concerns (41 percent), or transportation that was inadequate or unaffordable (41 percent).
Administrators in programs serving mostly women identified many of the same reasons for noncompletion as those in programs serving mostly men, with a few differences. Administrators in programs that served mostly women pointed to child care deficiencies significantly more often than did those in majority-male programs (65 vs. 38 percent). Similarly, in programs that served predominantly men, substance abuse problems were much more commonly cited than in the majority-women programs (43 vs. 28 percent).
Which supports did administrators believe were most effective?
Nearly all program officials reported that supportive services were critical for participants to complete their training. According to one administrator,
[Providing support services] is a slog. It’s a lot of hard work. It costs a lot. But it’s essential if we’re going to do the work this society needs.
Although participant demographics and program characteristics were also associated with job training success, the survey responses supported the anecdotal evidence regarding the importance of support services. Sixty-two percent of administrators who said their trainees’ needs for support were met well report high completion rates (80 percent or above), compared with just 30 percent who said their participants needs are not met well.
The administrators surveyed asserted that certain services had an especially important impact on participant success. Assistance with child care, transportation, and financial needs—including help in finding and paying for housing—were identified as especially critical to program completion. One administrator described a trainee who was
living out of her car with two young children [when she] entered our 12- week full-time intensive program. Our partners got her child care and eventually housing. She completed the program and is an apprentice earning $28 per hour. She is continuing her education and will soon have her associates’ degree.
IWPR’s report contains a wealth of information regarding different models of delivering support services and makes valuable recommendations for programs seeking to leverage scarce resources.
 Given the 2016 election’s results, were the question posed today, presumably many fewer administrators would say they were likely to expand supports in the near future.