Finding the Next Job

Reemployment Strategies in Retention and Advancement Programs for Current and Former Welfare Recipients

By Melissa Wavelet, Karin Martinson, Gayle Hamilton

Current and former welfare recipients often have very unstable employment experiences. They find low-wage work but then quickly lose these jobs (either voluntarily or not), have trouble finding another job, and are unable to achieve earnings gains, even over time. This practitioner brief offers program administrators — particularly those managing employment retention and advancement programs — practical advice on how to design and implement policies that turn a recent job loss into an opportunity to find a better job. It is based on the experiences of 12 programs in the national Employment Retention and Advancement (ERA) evaluation conducted by MDRC for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor. A central lesson from this evaluation is that retention and advancement programs for this population confront very rapid and high rates of job loss despite the services provided and must therefore focus as much, if not more, on reemploying program participants as on helping them advance in existing jobs.

The programs in the ERA evaluation offer a variety of intervention models and local contexts from which to draw lessons. Most programs were designed to improve the employment outcomes of current or former recipients, primarily single mothers, of Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). Some targeted individuals who were already working when they enrolled in the program, while others first connected with individuals when they were unemployed. From site to site, a broad range of institutions delivered services, including workforce development and welfare agencies; community colleges; and for-profit, nonprofit, and community-based organizations. The programs operated from 2000 through 2004, and the study follow-up period extended until 2007. While the labor market was fairly challenging during this period, economic conditions were not as dire as today, and unemployment levels were not as high.

This 12-page practitioner brief focuses on one aspect of the ERA programs — that is, their strategies to reemploy the many program participants who quickly lost jobs. Limited rigorous evidence is available on reemployment strategies. Moreover, the ERA evaluation was not designed to test the effectiveness of the specific strategies discussed in this document. However, the experiences — successful or not — across the ERA programs can provide important lessons for developing or operating employment programs for current and former welfare recipients. The reemployment services that were offered to newly unemployed individuals are similar to job placement services in programs that target unemployed populations generally, but there are differences, particularly in using recent job loss as a learning tool in finding the next job.

While preventing job loss can be an appropriate goal for retention and advancement programs, the ERA study illustrates how challenging it is to keep individuals in a particular job. Programs might consider redefining “retention” as sustained employment across jobs rather than as sustained employment in any one job. The focus in this brief is on how to address job loss once it has happened: structuring job search and job placement services for those who have recently lost their jobs, with the goal of reducing the length of unemployment, improving the quality of the new job over the previous one, and achieving greater employment stability over time. The lessons address three overarching questions:

  • How can programs learn about participants’ job losses quickly?
  • Which strategies might contribute to faster reemployment?
  • How can managers organize staff and resources to address job loss?
Wavelet, Melissa, Karin Martinson, and Gayle Hamilton. 2010. “Finding the Next Job.” New York: MDRC.