Making a Good Jobs Program Even Better: How to Strengthen DC’s Project Empowerment

by Ed Lazere | April 1st, 2015 | PDF of this report

Introduction and Summary

Project Empowerment – a DC program that places unemployed residents in jobs and pays their wages for up to six months – should be re-designed to more effectively help residents keep those jobs when the subsidy ends. While Project Empowerment has features that have proven effective, and its results are about average among similar programs elsewhere, just one in four participants is working a year after starting the program. There are reforms that would improve Project Empowerment and make it a top performer nationally, rather than average.

Project Empowerment is one of the District’s main jobs programs for adults, serving 800 residents every year. It follows a model used in many jurisdictions, under which adults who face trouble finding work are placed into jobs for a limited period of time, with wages paid by the program rather than by the employer. DC’s program offers fully subsidized employment for up to six months and is geared toward residents who have a hard time finding employment because of previous incarceration, homelessness, or a history of substance abuse. About 90 percent of participants have a criminal record.

Subsidized jobs programs are important for several reasons. They provide needed jobs and income to residents who otherwise may have few options. They offer a chance for work experience, networking, and skills development in a supportive environment, which ideally helps lead to permanent, unsubsidized employment. Subsidized jobs can help reduce long-term use of government assistance and criminal recidivism. And, these programs can help employers by offering free or low-cost labor to expand their business and the chance to test out a worker before hiring them permanently.

At the same time, the success of subsidized jobs programs is not guaranteed and depends on careful program design. Some programs have had limited effects on long-term employment prospects, and ongoing experimentation with program design is being pursued to develop more effective models.

This review of Project Empowerment finds both strengths and opportunities for improvement. The program follows nationally-proven practices in several areas, such as placing participants largely

with private employers and providing financial bonuses for participants who keep their jobs for a specified amount of time. Project Empowerment’s employment outcomes appear to match national averages for subsidized jobs programs. About one of two participants transitions to an unsubsidized job, and half of those workers keep their job for a year. Project Empowerment recipients also have a lower rate of criminal recidivism than returning citizens overall.

Nevertheless, there are reforms that would make the program more effective:

  • Change program design to improve private-sector job placements: Most Project Empowerment participants are placed with private sector employers, but without features used in other programs that help lead to unsubsidized jobs. The most effective programs in other communities place workers on the payroll of their employer – with the employer reimbursed from the program – rather than having the worker paid by the program. Many successful programs provide only partial wage subsidies and set an expectation that good employees will be hired. These approaches might help the District connect participants with businesses that are ready to expand and keep their Project Empowerment employee after the subsidy ends.
  • Improve program design to serve citizens returning from prison: If the District continues to view Project Empowerment as primarily for those for with a criminal record – a reasonable goal – it should give priority to residents coming straight from prison. Moreover, Project Empowerment should measure rates of recidivism among participants, since this may be a key benefit of the program. While information on recidivism was collected for this analysis, Project Empowerment managers do not routinely collect this information or use it to assess the program’s success.
  • Provide robust coaching for workers: Employers note that “soft skills” such as timeliness and workplace behavior are key to retaining employment. Project Empowerment helps participants with conflict resolution and behavior in the workplace, yet these job coaches are expected to help a large number of participants, making it difficult to provide high quality support. In addition, Project Empowerment provides no job coaching once participants transition to unsubsidized jobs. Enhanced job coaching could improve participants’ ability to resolve workplace problems that arise during the subsidy period and could provide ongoing support to help participants keep permanent jobs.
  • Improve connections with education and training programs: Because a sizable share of Project Empowerment participants have not finished high school, more may need to be connected with literacy programs, either outside Project Empowerment or in combination with a Project Empowerment job. In addition, workers who complete Project Empowerment and fail to keep a job may be good candidates for skills training that will help them be better equipped to keep a job in the future. Finally, Project Empowerment could use resources from the employment and training component of SNAP (formerly food stamps) to help pay for expenses such as transportation for recipients who also receive SNAP.
  • Solicit more feedback from employers: Project Empowerment staff conduct surveys of employers to assess their satisfaction with the program, and employers submit monthly progress reports. But the program could solicit more detailed feedback, such as whether or not participants were hired for unsubsidized employment and what influenced this decision.
  • Create clear program rules with public input: Key features of Project Empowerment, such as bonuses provided for job retention, are set by the Department of Employment Services and are not dictated by law, regulation or any process with public input. This means that the program can be changed substantially without public input or notification. The Mayor and Council should develop a process that ensures that Project Empowerment’s rules are clearly publicized and solicits public input on major program changes. Clear publication of program rules and publication of an annual program plan would accomplish these goals.
  • Improve data collection: Project Empowerment has the capacity to measure its own effectiveness – such as job retention and recidivism – but this information is not reported in a useful fashion and it does not appear to be used to inform program improvements. The District should track data on participants more fully to see the impact on long-term employment, wages, and recidivism, and to assess the kinds of job placements that are likely to be most successful.

This report was supported by a grant from the Greater Washington Workforce Development Collaborative, an initiative of the Community Foundation for the National Capital Region.

To print a copy of the report, click here