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Washington State’s Welfare-Reform Plan Tries New Approach To Ending Unemployment

In June 1996, 99,881 Washington State families received public assistance.

By June 1999, if all goes according to plan, that number will have dropped by 15,000 to 84,881.

That’s the goal of WorkFirst, the welfare-reform program which was signed into law by Governor Gary Locke last April and which has sent thousands of individuals into the marketplace looking for work, many for the first time.

WorkFirst reverses traditional strategies in which unemployed persons receive training, then are sent out to look for work. Under the terms of WorkFirst, the individual looks for a job first, and receives training only as needed. Every unemployed adult in the state is expected to work, even if it’s in a not-for-pay community-service position designed to help the participant gain work experience.

“The fundamental objective of WorkFirst is that we want the labor market to determine the individual ability of the applicants to get and retain a job,” said Terry Covey, a program manager for the Department of Social and Health Services.

The emphasis is on real-world experience, he said. The hope is that by gaining a foothold in the labor market, the client will be able to make his or her way up the employment ladder.

To that end, DSHS staffers encourage their clients to meet employers at every opportunity, including at events like the Career Fair.

“Any time we see an opportunity for people to go meet employers, we think it’s a good thing,” Covey said.

DSHS staff members will be at the Career Fair, too, talking with employers and trying to determine the nature and number of jobs available to individuals trying to leave public assistance.

“We want them to know about potential job opportunities,” said Covey.

The notion of work first, training later, represents a sea change in the response to unemployment. “It’s a real cultural change,” Covey said, “not only for the people receiving assistance, but for those of us who are providing the services, as well.

“It changes the whole way we approach this problem.”

Such revolutions don’t occur without pain and, “the participants themselves are a little apprehensive about the total change; in the past, we have not mandated people to participate in the labor market the way we do now.”

A white paper posted on the Internet helps explain how the program works: “WorkFirst will help people to develop work habits and skills on the job rather than in the classroom.”

Contracts with such organizations as Goodwill Industries, the Prevocational Training Center and the Institute for Extended Learning can help ease the way into the mainstream.

But for those who are unable to find a job during their initial search, there’s another layer of support. With the help of a counselor, they evaluate their job search in an attempt to understand what didn’t work.

And at that point, a variety of resources can come into play.

“The community colleges will be looking at ways to provide skill building,” Covey said, “and the Office of Employment Security will be doing training on how to interview and conduct a job search.

“They will be looking to provide work experience placements for people who lack work history and need some work experience.”

Those people who have never held down a job, or whose work histories have been sporadic, may have difficulty asking for an interview, “but we’ve had some positive responses from candidates who didn’t think they could ever get out there and do an interview.

“We have to instill in them the realization that just because they didn’t get the job doesn’t mean they failed. They had the interview, they had the experience and that’s a success.”

Employers have reacted positively, as well, he said. “We’ve had them come to our training programs and hire candidates on the spot.”

Long-lasting changes will occur, Covey said, when new role models are found for those who traditionally haven’t had role models within the working mainstream.

“It’s a work ethic thing. It’s something that parents need to pass on and that schools need to pass on. We need to find role models that those individuals haven’t had.”

A large portion of the unemployed population wants to work, he said, but doesn’t yet have the skills necessary to find and keep a job.

“Most of these people are just like anyone else looking for a job; it just happens that at this point they are being supported by the welfare system.

“They don’t want to be where they are, but circumstances have dictated it to them.”

Once a job has been found, retention becomes the key issue.

“There are some concerns about the job retention aspects,” Covey said. “There are lots of entry-level jobs, but can people retain those mobs and move up the wage ladder?”

The newly employed person faces the challenge of learning skills that others take for granted.

“They need to know what it means to be at work from 8 to 5 everyday, to have their child-care plan in place, to have a transportation plan in place.

“Some people have never been exposed to thinking about these things. It will be painful for them because they have never done these things before.”

Such essentials as a firm handshake and good eye contact can be a challenge for anyone who is out of work, Covey said, not just those who have been chronically unemployed.

“I think it’s not just a reflection of public assistance recipients, but of anybody who’s looking for a job.”

But those so-called “soft skills” go a long way with some employers, Covey added.

“They know they can teach the skills the employee needs to do on the job.”

A long road lies ahead before WorkFirst can be called a success, but the early indicators are good, Covey said, and success on the global level will lead to many personal victories for people fighting to get a foothold.

“It will take a while, but if everyone comes to the table with all the services and support that’s there, we can be successful.

“It’s been successful so far, and we’re just getting this thing going.”