Solutions to Ease Access for Parents to Job Training
Programs abound to offer Americans with low incomes the chance to receive job training services—but a lack of affordable child care is a barrier for many potential participants. In 2016, a five-year federal grant program established by the U.S. Department of Labor called the Strengthening Working Families Initiative (SWFI) was launched to try to remove barriers to child care for parents who want to participate in education and training programs. Mathematica, a policy research firm, provided technical assistance to SWFI grantees and Nickie Fung and J.B. Wogan of Mathematica spoke with Spotlight about some of the lessons learned from SWFI, which were also summarized in a recent episode of Mathematica’s On The Evidence podcast. The conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Could you set the stage for us on how Mathematica became involved with the Strengthening Working Families Initiative and what the goal was?
Nickie Fung: So, back in 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor established the Strengthening Working Families Initiative, which we call SWFI. And the goal of SWFI was to provide child care and other supports to parents who wanted to advance their careers with job training. There were 13 grantees who participated, a mixture of nonprofit organizations, local workforce development boards, institutions of higher learning, and municipalities. Part of the goal was that typically, few parents from low-income households have participated in workforce development and training programs. And what was unusual about this initiative was the focus on removing barriers to training that parents with low incomes often face. For SWFI in particular, that was child care and specifically aspects of child care like affordability and convenience.
I am a researcher here at Mathematica and I was part of a team that provided technical assistance directly to the grantees. I was one of four technical assistance coaches and we focused on implementation. So, we met regularly with the grantees to help them address any challenges that they were facing and brainstorm solutions to those challenges.
Can you give us an example of assistance you provided?
An example of a challenge that some of the grantees faced was recruiting participants into their programs. And it wasn’t that individuals weren’t interested in participating. It was just a matter of getting the message out into their community that this program was available, these supports were available. We heard from some grantees that once potential participants heard about the child care and other supports that were available, they were immediately interested in participating.
And then the pandemic happened in the middle of all this?
Yes, as the initiative was supposed to be wrapping up. It directly affected a lot of people, including our grantees and the parents participating in their job training programs. You’re always presented with problems and challenges, but as we mention in some of the issue briefs that we published this past summer, one of the grantees, Pacific Gateway, which is located in Long Beach, California, managed to leverage funding from the Coronavirus Aid and Relief Act to provide child care in participants homes. All of the grantees saw how the pandemic disrupted child care. Some provided resources to support parents and helped them access support for family, friends, and neighbors to provide informal child care.
And did the initiative end at the end of 2021?
It ended last summer.
Tell us a bit about the lasting effects of SWFI.
So, the grantees continue to work in their communities. As part of the initiative, grantees were asked to make plans to sustain the approaches that they took to integrate job training and child care after their SWFI grant ended. And what we saw through our work with the grantees was what I would describe as the cultural or mindset shift in the grantee organizations around addressing childcare needs for parents. We know that some of the grantees were seeking other funding sources, either through foundation grants or local child care subsidies, to continue addressing those child care needs for parents who wanted to participate in job training and education programs.
And what are some of the other lessons learned, as the program now has ended?
Great question. Funding through the initiative, in addition to the technical assistance provided by Mathematica and the Urban Institute, created the right conditions for some innovative solutions to addressing child care barriers, specifically at the local level. So, for example, one of the strategies we talk about in our podcast is that many grantees created new navigator roles to guide parents through the process of applying for support like child care assistance, and then helping them identify safe, convenient, accessible, affordable child care options.
And does the initiative address at all the issues within the child care industry itself? It was a difficult sector to navigate before the pandemic, and now has become even more so.
I think it brings to light the continued importance of child care, right? This initiative was launched in 2016 when child care was a barrier and it remains an important part of parents being able to participate in job training programs and education.
Do you feel like the national conversation about child care has changed as a result of the pandemic?
I can answer that from a personal perspective, as everyone’s experience in the pandemic was very personal. I’m finding that many of my friends and family members have young children and it was eye opening how necessary child care was to our everyday lives, not just to be able to work, but also to have safe spaces for our children and for ourselves. And I think more people are talking about it. I know among my community, more people are talking about how essential this is, and I hope that it becomes a more widespread part of the conversation. And from my personal experience, I’m seeing it more. It makes me hopeful at the very least.
Are there other takeaways from the trial that you’d like to underline for us?
We have a series of issue briefs and in those briefs, we highlight many different types of strategies that the grantees implemented in addition to the work that they did around integrating child care into their training programs and education. One other strategy that some of the grantees implemented to support child care was working with and partnering with local agencies and local funders. So, some of the grantees worked with their Temporary Assistance for Needy Families programs or their child care resource and referral agencies, and those relationships help them secure long-term funding for child care expenses beyond the life of the grant.
Is there anything else you’d like to call attention to?
J.B. Wogan: If I could just flag a couple of things from our podcast? I think there were a couple grantees we interviewed who talked about transportation being an issue. David Moore at TAP (Total Action for Progress) in the Virginia area talked about public transportation being a problem, even in a slightly more urban area like Roanoke but also in the New River Valley, which is more of a rural area. And Nick Schultz from Pacific Gateway in Long Beach talked about what a nightmare is to travel in the metro area there and that that can make it harder to combine child care and the training that parents might be interested in. And Nickie, perhaps talk a little about OAI in Chicago and the specific obstacles they encountered?
Fung: Sure, I’d be happy to. I worked very closely with them throughout SWFI and their relationship with their local child care resource and referral agency was key to their program. So, what they did was they established a close relationship with that agency at the beginning of the initiative. And then they used that relationship to help inform how their navigators supported parents. Basically, the navigators went through a training on how to complete the application for a child care subsidy, and then implemented that training with the parents to make sure that parents could have the information that they needed about the application and then successfully submit it and follow up with whatever questions that child care agencies might have had.
J.B. Wogan, senior strategic communications specialist, Mathematica
Nickie Fung, researcher, Mathematica