As the worst of the pandemic is hopefully behind us and the economy opens up, policymakers must think carefully about ways to improve workforce development programs that serve the many people who will be looking for a job. Currently, nearly 10 million people, disproportionately people of color, are unemployed and looking for work. And many more people who have delayed finding a job until it is safe to work outside of the home, or until their children are back in school or day care, will soon start job hunting. As Congress moves to reauthorize the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 (WIOA) and considers key components of President Biden’s American Jobs Plan, its members should consider increasing funding for the employment counseling provided by American Job Centers. Why? Because it works.
More than 2,400 American Job Centers are at the heart of the government’s system to help match job seekers with available jobs. These centers are located in every state and serve millions of job seekers and employers every year. At no cost to the job seeker, they provide “one-stop shopping” for planning a career and finding a job. Anyone can go into a center and independently use computers and software to develop resumes, apply for jobs, and access detailed information about careers and job vacancies. The centers also offer workshops on topics related to finding a job and funding for education and training programs.
Job seekers who have trouble finding a job on their own can meet with an employment counselor at a center. During multiple one-on-one meetings, counselors can assess job seekers’ interests and skills and identify potential jobs that match those interests and skills, develop a plan for job seekers’ careers, review resumes, provide job interviewing tips, conduct mock interviews, and provide connections to additional support services such as transportation and child care. If a job requires additional education or training, the counselors can help job seekers access funding and choose the right program.
A study I led at Mathematica, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor, found that employment counseling was effective and its benefits far outweighed its costs. People who met with an employment counselor at a center went on to earn $3,000 to $7,000 more (depending on the data used in the analysis) over the next 30 months than those who didn’t. Yet, counseling costs the government only about $150 per participant. Our study used a randomized controlled trial—the same rigorous approach used to test the effectiveness of new drugs and vaccines. It occurred at 28 randomly selected local areas, so the findings can be applied to employment counselors in American Job Centers across the country.
As Congress plans to reauthorize WIOA and considers the American Jobs Plan, policymakers should build in additional funding for employment counseling. Currently, there is considerable interest in innovative workforce development approaches such as career pathways, apprenticeships, and sector-based training programs. These are all promising approaches that have been found effective in some circumstances for some populations. But in addition to funding these new approaches, policymakers should expand funding for the basic services American Job Centers already provide. The evidence is clear—the help that American Job Center employment counselors currently provide day in and day out works.