Past evaluations have provided solid evidence regarding what works to help low-income individuals become employed. However, these studies have also found that many people who found jobs were not better off financially, in part because these jobs were unstable, low paying, and provided few advancement opportunities. More recent randomized controlled evaluations of both sector-based initiatives and job retention and advancement initiatives have yielded evidence of strategies that may be effective in improving job stability and increasing earnings. The WorkAdvance program combines the most successful features of these programs and can be viewed as a component of a career pathways approach.

WorkAdvance is one of the evidence-based programs that was replicated through a national Social Innovation Fund project sponsored by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the Mayor’s Office for Economic Opportunity (NYC Opportunity). The program helps participants prepare for and enter quality jobs in selected sectors with opportunities for career growth. Once placed, participants are provided further assistance to guide them on a path of career advancement.

MDRC examined the impacts and implementation of the WorkAdvance program in Tulsa, Oklahoma; New York City; and northeast Ohio. Two-year impact findings were released in August 2016. Impact findings through Year 3 were released in September 2017. Longer-term impact findings and findings from a benefit-cost analysis were released in March 2020.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

The local subgrantee program at each site is grounded in a targeted sector (for example, health care or information technology) for which the program provider has in-depth knowledge and strong relationships with employers. WorkAdvance is not just a job placement program; its goal is to prepare, train, place, and sustain unemployed and low-wage workers in quality jobs with benefits (such as health insurance) and established career tracks. A focus on career advancement is instilled in all services of the program. Training results in industry-recognized postsecondary credentials, as is the case in many career pathways initiatives.

The program model is designed to meet the individual needs of workers by providing the following four core service components:

  • Sector-focused preemployment services. Each participant receives an orientation customized to the targeted sector, meets with a career coach to assess the participant’s interest in the sector and to create an individual career plan, and receives job-readiness preparation (in soft skills, résumé writing, etc.) tailored to the sector.
  • Occupational skills training. Short-term, sector-specific skills training is offered free of charge, accompanied by an industry-recognized training credential or certification.
  • Job development and placement in targeted occupations. Program staff members capitalize on new and existing relationships with employers in the targeted industry to place participants in appropriate occupations, match them with jobs that suit their skills, and help them identify future advancement opportunities in the industry.
  • Postemployment services. Coaching is provided to participants for up to two years after random assignment to promote job retention and career advancement, assist with reemployment, and address issues that may arise with employers.

The WorkAdvance evaluation will seek to address the following key questions:

  • What does it take to mount this type of program?
  • How were postemployment services implemented, and do these services promote advancement where other programs have faced challenges?
  • To what extent did the WorkAdvance programs improve employment, employment retention, earnings, wage rates, hours worked, employer-provided benefits, and earnings beyond the levels attained by control group members?
  • Which types of participants are most likely or least likely to benefit from this approach and achieve real work gains?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The impact of the program is being rigorously measured through a random assignment research design. In this design — which is widely considered to be the most reliable evaluation approach — eligible individuals are assigned through a lottery to either a program group that is offered WorkAdvance services or to a control group that is not eligible for WorkAdvance services but that remains eligible for other services in the community. To assist local subgrantee programs with the development and launch of the various components of WorkAdvance, each of the subgrantees received technical support from the study team.

Across the four sites in Tulsa, New York City, and northeast Ohio, the evaluation will examine the outcomes of approximately 2,500 research sample members, roughly half of whom will have received WorkAdvance services. In addition to baseline data about participants collected at the time of random assignment, the research will rely on program activity data from each site’s management information system, unemployment insurance wage records data, a survey administered around two years after random assignment, labor market information, program records on recruitment and screening procedures, observations of program activities, and interviews with participants, employers, and program staff members. The project will also conduct a benefit-cost analysis across the subgrantees.

The WorkAdvance subgrantees are:

  • Madison Strategies Group (Tulsa, OK)
  • Towards Employment (Cleveland, OH)
  • Per Scholas (New York City)
  • St. Nicks Alliance (New York City)