Pullman Historic District mural” by Sheila Scarborough

October 6, 2017; Chicago Tribune

There’s no doubt that most nonprofits could better use evaluation to their advantage, and by that we mean it could be used to develop successful programs more quickly. Proving success to the outside world is important, but not as important perhaps as disciplining your organization to ask the right next questions. In this story, an employment nonprofit has used its data to make one point in a very complicated practice.

Job growth in the Chicago Metropolitan Area has been slower than other US urban centers since the Great Recession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the area’s job growth over the last twelve months was only 0.5 percent, the slowest rate of increase among the 12 largest urban centers. Particularly challenged are Chicago’s South Side and West Side communities, where more than one in two residents lack stable employment. Finding a job in this environment is not easy, particularly for those who do not have a history of employment and a strong network to lean on. One young nonprofit, Skills for Chicagoland’s Future (“Skills”), is having significant success with its model, which has had a chance to prove itself through a well-designed evaluation.

Rather than concentrating on the job seeker and the support they need to enter the job market, Skills describes its approach as “demand-driven,” focusing on finding job-seekers who bring the skills and talents employers need.

In taking this demand-driven or “employer-driven” approach, Skills joins a minority but growing trend among nonprofits. The idea is simple yet profound: Too often, workforce development programs have trained people for jobs that don’t exist. A 2014 US Department of Labor paper notes in its listing of findings that, “Employer and industry engagement strategies may improve the alignment of training to employer needs.” The 2014 Workforce Opportunity and Innovation Act, which guides the actions of the US Department of Labor’s Employment and Training Administration (DOLETA), was centered on shifting federal support to support employer-driven programs.

In a recent profile, the Chicago Tribune described how Skills is structured: “Public employment agencies match people to jobs, but Skills starts by working with businesses to determine their hiring needs and then recruits job seekers with the right backgrounds to fill those jobs.” Skills then provides support for the new worker as the worker adjusts to the demands of a new job and employer, further improving the chances of long-term job success.

Data gathered in a recent evaluation sponsored by the Joyce Foundation and conducted by the New Growth Group showed that “Seventy-eight percent of the people placed through Skills were employed after a year, verses 65 percent for the comparison group. After two years, 73 percent of those placed through Skills remained employed, compared with 62 percent of those in the control group.”

New Growth’s Chris Spence told the Tribune, “Based on the strong outcomes, all signs would point to the fact that they are helping connect people to good opportunities…. The fact that Skills is able to identify candidates from among the lowest-earning pool and connect them to jobs is a testament to the effectiveness of their matching strategy.”

Marie Trzupek Lynch, founding president and CEO at Skills, sees these positive results and the organization’s ability to bring almost 4,500 men and women into the ranks of the employed as an endorsement of their strategy and an impetus to expand to other communities. “The real takeaway is that the model works and we can do much more…Many places around the country are struggling with unemployment and we want to make sure we can help.”

Because this approach pre-matches job to worker, it does have limitations. The New Growth Group’s evaluation cautions that the Skills “model is designed to fill job orders received from businesses with the most qualified candidates available. There is no obligation to serve every job-seeker registered in the system [and] may be effective in identifying individuals more likely to achieve success.” Left out are those who are hardest to serve and struggle the most to maintain employment. “Whereas other public service providers may have mandates to provide universal service to job seekers, Skills differentiates itself by first and foremost working to meet the demands of businesses.

And this is where, for us, the next questions lie.—Martin Levine