National and local experts discuss job placement, training and workforce development strategies within the framework of the CHA Plan for Transformation - Metropolitan Planning Council

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National and local experts discuss job placement, training and workforce development strategies within the framework of the CHA Plan for Transformation

A forum attended by more than 200 people offered national and local perspectives on how to assist low-income families reach self-sufficiency through jobs

A basic pillar of the CHA Plan for Transformation is its commitment to help public housing residents move not only into better housing, but also towards economic self-sufficiency. In order to achieve this goal, quality job placement and retention, training, and other work-related services rank high on the CHA’s list of self-sufficiency strategies. As a recent MPC Update on the Plan  points out, currently, only 37 percent of families living in CHA properties and 30 percent of families using Housing Choice Vouchers have jobs.

The July 12 “Building Successful Mixed-Income Communities” forum co-sponsored by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and MPC in collaboration with the CHA, explored the current status of work-related services to low-income families living in public housing and the lessons learned from the field locally and nationally.

MarySue Barrett, MPC president, and Spruiell White, senior program officer at the MacArthur Foundation, introduced the forum, which featured:

- Opening Remarks by Terry Peterson, CEO of the CHA;

- Lessons learned nationally by Mark Elliott, executive vice president of Public/Private Ventures;

- The local perspective on high-impact services and job market trends, by Davis Jenkins, senior fellow at the University of Illinois at Chicago Great Cities Institute

- Challenges and lessons learned from the Service Connector program, by Molly McGrath, deputy commissioner for the Chicago Dept. of Human Services; and 

- A questions and answers session, moderated by Spruiell White.

Terry Peterson opened the forum acknowledging the many challenges inherent to the coordination of housing construction phases and resident self-sufficiency timelines (which by definition, do not have an end date): “Sometimes I feel like a dentist,” he joked, “with my patient complaining that I am going too slow and too fast at the same time.” Peterson pointed out that despite the financial commitments to date from the local, state and federal levels of government - - many public housing residents in Chicago are still suffering the consequences of decades of social and geographical isolation. The goal of the CHA, he stated, is to help families that have not started out with the same chances in life as others have, and that implies special assistance to residents looking for jobs. CHA knows that the first job might be low-wage and not last long, and that four or five chances might be needed for a resident to land an attractive job with a career path, but –Peterson asserted— success will always be possible if both sides, residents and CHA service providers, refuse to give up. Currently, he noted, CHA is striving to become a national model in service provision for residents, with six relocation agencies, nine service connectors operating in every neighborhood, and a variety of programs worth $53 million a year.

Mark Elliott divided his presentation in three parts:

1. How to prepare residents to work?

2. How to make their jobs pay?

3. How to create a support network?

1. Preparing residents to work, according to Elliott, requires flexible, customized strategies rather than conceptual models. He encouraged CHA to offer distinct programs to specific types of residents, especially designed for:

- Residents with steady, consistent work experience;

- Residents with an erratic work history, falling on and off the job market periodically; and

- Residents without major work experience and little education.

The challenge is to train and prepare residents for existing quality jobs with long-term potential. Transitional jobs, pointed out Elliott, are a possible path to follow. They are time-limited, wage-paying jobs that combine real work, skill development, and support services to help participants overcome substantial barriers to employment. After one to six months of paid work experience, participants are assisted in obtaining employment.

2. Making work pay is another important factor. Many public residents receiving welfare assistance based on their income levels, fear that obtaining a low-wage job will leave them worse off financially by not covering the subsequent reduction or elimination of public assistance (for rent, health care, food, and other basic expenses) that comes with an increased income.

A number of tools are available to minimize the negative impact of this reduction of welfare benefits, such as the Earned Income Tax Credit (a federal refund for low-income workers) or flat rent policies and other provisions that keep housing costs affordable for public housing families who see their incomes increase upon entering the job market. Individual Development Accounts (IDAs) are another solution. Following a concept similar to the one behind 401k plans, IDAs reward residents who save money for housing, education, and other self-sufficiency-related expenses, by matching their savings with additional money.

3. Developing social networks is key to guaranteeing job retention and accessing better jobs in the future. According to Elliott, mixed-income communities should give opportunities for low-income residents to network and develop relationships across income levels and classes. In order to promote a vibrant civic life at these communities, social and cultural activities must be planned by residents, open to everybody, and attractive to a variety of people.

Davis Jenkins  began his presentation  by pointing out the fierce competition at the lower end of the jobs spectrum, due to demographic changes, the outsourcing of jobs, and the proliferation of undocumented immigrants looking for entry-level jobs.

Experience shows, according to Jenkins, that chronically unemployed individuals will cycle through numerous jobs before becoming stably employed, often needing socialization to the culture of work as a first step. Low-wage workers often have to change jobs, even industries, to advance to family-supporting jobs.

Decent jobs paying a minimum of $12 per hour require skills and levels of literacy lacking in many public housing residents. Approaches to bridging this gap need to integrate basic literacy trainings into broader customer service-centered strategies and include post-secondary education contents.

Jenkins listed a number of sectors where public housing residents with limited work history, literacy levels, and skills could find their first opportunities:

  •  Employment agencies
  •  Nonprofits
  •  Hospitals, long-term care, and other health care providers
  •  Retail
  •  Security
  •  Hotels, restaurants
  •  Manufacturing, transportation, and logistics
  •  City contractors 

However, work alone usually does not lead to job advancement for low-wage workers, warned Jenkins: some job-connected training is needed to advance to jobs paying family-supporting wages. Job retention is also very important and requires working in collaboration with the whole family in order to destroy barriers and create a “work culture.”

High-impact employment services should address, according to Jenkins, both the needs and circumstances of job seekers/workers and the business needs of employers (e.g., recruitment, retention). They should include:

  • Marketing and recruitment
  • Employment-related assessment and counseling
  • Job placement and retention support
  • Transitional jobs
  • Bridge training programs
  • Post-secondary education and training
  • Support services (housing, day care, transportation, drug treatment, family counseling, etc.)

Jenkins mentioned the work of different local agencies and nonprofit organizations specialized in helping low-income individuals access and retain jobs, including the Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development, Heartland Alliance, and the Cara program (cára: from Old Irish, meaning ‘friend’).

The presentation ended with some recommendations for the CHA:

  • Research employers’ human resource needs and customize services accordingly.
  • Use transitional jobs to socialize hard-core unemployed to culture of work.
  • Invest heavily in work readiness preparation prior to placement and job coaching to promote retention.
  • Provide job-connected training at CHA sites.
  • Provide drug treatment and other services on-site.
  • Reach out to youth and men under 25.
  • Collect data on outcomes and use to improve services.

From the Chicago Dept. of Human Services, Molly McGrath oversees the management of the Service Connector program, funded by the CHA to help public housing residents achieve and maintain self-sufficiency. Through contracts with nine agencies with offices in every community area of Chicago, the program serves more than 12,000 families living in CHA scattered sites and family properties or using Housing Choice Vouchers issued since the beginning of the Plan for Transformation (October 1999).

The Service Connector program aims to achieve four kinds of results:

  • Families are stable: Through traditional case management the program links residents to education, child care, mental health, medical, and substance abuse treatment, etc.
  • Families have more household income: Including the array of assets coming into a home, including employment, work supports, etc
  • Families have more housing choices: The program helps families become lease compliant, and teaches them household budgeting, housing quality standards, etc.
  • Families are involved in their communities: Focusing on families becoming more connection to local churches, block clubs, and other neighborhood activities.

Workforce development is one of the tools that the Service Connector offers to CHA residents. Matching their skills with jobs is challenging: 44 percent of residents have education levels below high-school and lack GEDs; 84 percent have mathematical knowledge at below 9th grade levels, and 63 percent have reading abilities between 1st and 8th grades.

According to McGrath, the main barriers to employment for CHA residents are:

  • Literacy: low levels among residents are a profound barrier to employment.
  • Skills: Entry-level positions in the global economy often require a skills set that exceeds that of many residents.
  • Work History: a critical mass of residents have little or no work history.
  • Motivation: years of isolation in under-employed communities had a negative impact on motivation to work.

The Service Connector program offers and individualized approach to workforce development, offering services leading to:

  • Employment trajectories for those who are employed;
  • Consistent employment for those who are sporadically employed; and 
  • Employment skills for those with little or no work history.

McGrath described the work preparation provided to CHA families, which includes resume writing, interview skills, acceptable attire, professional behavior, etc. Residents also receive retention support, via early warning systems for newly employees and regular follow-up with newly employed residents.

McGrath concluded by posing a number of questions still to be answered, such as: What should the system of incentives and consequences for CHA residents look like? What should the role of schools be? What are the factors in a family’s life that lead to success?

To see the Molly McGrath’s PowerPoint presentation at the forum, click here .

Spruiell White moderated the Q&A session. Following is a sample of questions and answers:

Public housing families that engage in the job market will eventually have higher incomes that might reduce their housing subsidy or even disqualify them for housing assistance. Isn’t this a disincentive for families to work?

Mark Elliott: Frankly, dealing with families whose incomes have become too high (over 80% of the Area Median) to qualify for public housing would be a problem that we would love to have. The principle behind workforce development programs is to help families move toward self-sufficiency progressively, eventually reaching independence. To avoid disincentives in the short-term, CHA has set up flat rents and other rent policies that soften the impact of increased income on monthly rent payments.

What is flexible funding for workforce development programs?

Mark Elliott: It's funding approaches should be quick, creative and able to leverage efforts at the local and neighborhood level. One-size-fits-all approaches should be discarded: funding and strategies should adapt to the needs of each specific community.

What role should the unions play in this effort? Wouldn’t apprenticeships be a good way to promote job placement?

Davis Jenkins: Getting into apprenticeship programs can be very hard because of the high academic and skill levels required. Also, apprenticeships have geographical limitations (quotas) in areas such as construction. Nevertheless, some construction activities and painting can offer opportunities through apprenticeships.

Non-exempt public housing residents returning to mixed-income communities developed on former CHA sites need to meet a 30-hour per week work requirement in order to be admitted. How does this compare to other mixed-income sites nationally?

Mark Elliott: Studies on TANF show that the average worker works less hours than that. Also, many jobs available to low-skilled individuals offer less than 30 hours per week. This makes me think that maybe the requirement should be flexible and allow, for instance, to be met by two family members working part-time.

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