What Works in Workforce Development Programs

Pam Sornson, JD

Pam Sornson, JD

August 16, 2022

There’s a reason why ‘economic’ and ‘workforce’ development initiatives are so closely aligned: they individually address complementary sides of the same challenge. ‘Economic’ development focuses on increasing the growth of regional economic activity. ‘Workforce’ development focuses on the skill sets of workers whose efforts will generate those financial gains. When pursued strategically as a single goal (building both simultaneously), extending capacity in one should result in increased capacity in the other.


Workforce Development as Economic Driver

These days, ‘workforce development’ (WFD) is the primary focus of many communities, and multiple WFD programs have materialized to provide topical and timely training for both unemployed and employed people. While it may be too soon to assess the success of any one of them individually, there are certain elements to a WFD program that have proven their worth over time. It is likely that programs that incorporate some or all of these elements into their practices will also demonstrate success when those assessments do occur.

It’s important to note, too, how the COVID pandemic has transformed the work world. By forcing isolation on almost all populations, the coronavirus eliminated those jobs that required human interaction. But the digital response to the health crisis also introduced new ways of doing traditional work, opening new and as yet unfilled job opportunities. Consequently, many workers lost their jobs and now need to find both new skills and new work. At the same time, currently employed people may find their skill sets no longer match the post-COVID demands of their occupation. They may also need additional training and skill building to remain competitive in the job market. Incorporating efforts to address all these variables (in addition to those otherwise required for any WFD effort) will be necessary for a WFD project to fully and truly thrive.


What Makes a Successful WFD Program?

In 2012, the Federal Department of Labor (DOL) commissioned a survey to understand how and why some WFD programs were successful. Using data gleaned from the evaluation of several Chicago-based WFD programs, the survey assessed both the program activities that resulted in trainee/employee success as well as the data used to track that information. While the report is a decade old, its conclusions still resonate in today’s WFD sector.

According to the survey, a range of factors influenced program success, including program and practice elements, individual participant circumstances, and training provider organizational components. Another field of factors related to individual participant success was also influential, including their social and economic situation, barriers to employment, and their ability to access and acquire support resources. Cumulatively, the survey tracked how the programs managed the realities of individual people on their path through occupational training to successful employment. Successful participant outcomes (people becoming employed) were more likely in programs that checked both personal resources and occupational development practices as integrated elements of the overarching strategy.


Data on WFD efforts are even more critical now than in 2012. This study parsed out four data-related recommendations to clarify not just what researchers should look for but also why and how gathering that information is of value.

    1. A well-defined common set of WFD performance measures is needed to establish community-based standards, with a subset of criteria that facilitates flexibility for both program providers and funders. Measured factors can include, for example, the number of participants who complete the program (not just attend it), the impact of social support on the success of program graduates, and the number of graduates finding relevant employment, to name just three.
    2. Follow subpopulations as they progress through the program. A well-implemented Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) strategy can provide support tailored to specific subgroups (i.e., previously incarcerated, ESL, etc.). Tracking their activities through the program will also show how well those systems are working.
    3. Tracking individuals through hiring and beyond based on their particular circumstances will reveal how well the social support systems and the training program elements work together to achieve WFD goals.
    4. Collect data across the entire WFD enterprise, including organizational operations, individual program activities, individual client successes, and external engagements outside the program. Analysis at each level can help researchers and WFD professionals understand not just what works but also how to replicate it in other communities.


In terms of specific activities, the survey also identifies several distinct program initiatives that proved to achieve better participant outcomes in most WFD organizations:

Organizations that developed comprehensive intake assessments and built programs around meeting those criteria were most likely to have successful participants. Those organizations that remained flexible, too, in the resources they had available (or were willing to obtain) were also superior in responding to their client’s needs. Perhaps the most critical revelation here is that successful programs are designed to meet their participant’s needs; participants aren’t asked to try to fit into an organizational structure that doesn’t suit their situation.

Collaboration among program providers, area and regional employers, and other WFD partners is also key to participant success. In some cases, employer partners and other WFD entities were treated more like customers, with the organization working to achieve a satisfactory ‘customer experience’ similar to that found in the retail sector. In other cases, success was had when incorporating the labor force needs of program system ‘end users,’ those entities that hire program graduates but can’t participate in the program itself. Enhanced collaboration among these WFD leadership populations to meet all their ‘customer’s’ needs also reverses the value stream by facilitating the sharing of industry and occupational insights by industry insiders with program developers.

Not surprisingly, the most successful WFD program providers had strong organizational leadership and administrations that were dedicated to pursuing the ultimate goal of a well-trained, economically beneficial workforce. These programs maintained their focus on participant and ‘customer’ goals while also planning for future growth and advocating for more and better public policies and funding.

Programs that pursued these types of initiatives and collected data relevant to all of them demonstrated solid WFD program success while generating the information needed to prove that point, which can be used to build on for future iterations.


If this were a ‘cart’ and ‘horse’ analogy, then WFD efforts would be the horse, while economic growth would be the cart. Communities looking to improve their economic situations can learn how first applying sound WFD principles can help them achieve that goal.



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