In Austin, a Public/Private Partnership for Workforce Success

In Austin, a Public/Private Partnership for Workforce Success

Last week, the New York Times highlighted a workforce training program in San Antonio called Project QUEST that helps hundreds of people every year move out of poverty and into sustainable employment. A recent analysis of the program was particularly encouraging. Nine years after entering training, participants are still experiencing high rates of employment and earning over $5,000 more annually than a similar group that didn’t participate in the program. Such outcomes are rare in workforce development programs.

The Times article came out just as AEI’s Vocation, Career, and Work research team began discussions with Capital IDEA in Austin, Texas, an organization that uses a model similar to Project QUEST. Capital IDEA has been working with low-income families in Austin for more than 20 years to move workers from low-wage to middle-skill jobs. In 2018, program graduates earned an average starting wage of $22 per hour. A previous analysis of the program has found sustained wage gains at least four years after program completion.

Like Project QUEST, Capital IDEA coordinates access to training and employment for low-skill employees in partnership with local community colleges. Applicants with low literacy and numeracy are first enrolled in a 12-week college prep academy which also trains students in the soft skills essential to finding and retaining jobs. Once cleared for participation in skills training, Capital IDEA provides two primary services: intensive case management through a ‘career navigator’ and full coverage of all training-related expenses including tuition, books, fees, childcare, and transportation to the community college.

Capital IDEA makes a significant effort to ensure that its training providers are teaching skills that are in-step with local labor market demands, with special emphasis on industries that are growing and hold promise to provide workers with middle-class earnings. The staff maintain constant communication with potential employers, cross-checking training programs with industry leaders to ensure they are focusing on the right skills and making adjustments as necessary.

Capital IDEA also adheres to a meticulous vetting process for participants. It asks applicants to come to the organization with a particular career path in mind. Because the program emphasizes longer-term training programs that lead to degrees rather than short-term credentials, it is important for trainees to show sufficient commitment to a particular career path to invest several years in education and training. Capital IDEA staff administer a career profile assessment, direct applicants to career exploration services, and provide additional information about the career to enrollees. The staff also perform a personal budget review to help applicants think through finances, ensuring they will be able to sustain themselves and their family throughout the training process. Capital IDEA doesn’t say ‘no’ often, but it does say ‘not yet.’ Staff work with candidates who aren’t yet ready to enroll develop a plan to resolve any issues. They remain eligible if their circumstances change in the future.  

Finally, in what Capital IDEA leaders described as their "secret sauce," staff sit down with an otherwise-eligible applicant for an “affirm your commitment meeting.” The staff outline expectations of consistent communication, regular attendance, and high-level effort from the participant. In turn, staffers reiterate their own level of commitment to the participant, promising to stay with them regardless of how long it takes to complete the process. Career navigators go out of their way to walk with trainees through the struggles of personal and professional life. This includes at least weekly peer coaching meetings, and navigators remain available at any time to address any need for any reason. In providing this level of availability, the organization sends a clear message: You give us the effort, and we will make a genuine commitment to your success.

Research suggests that the anxiety and stress that come with the ever-present uncertainty of poverty can be a crippling burden to bear. Capital IDEA, Project QUEST, and organizations like it underscore the importance of a holistic approach to workforce development that takes steps to provide both financial and relational support systems upon which a successful career can be built. One is insufficient without the other. The program takes considerable time and investment – averaging $6,000 per participant annually and typically taking three years to complete – but the results are hard to argue with.

Brent Orrell is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute where he conducts research on workforce development, criminal justice reform, and social theory. Caleb Seibert is a research assistant at the American Enterprise Institute.

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