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Career Coaching Can Help Workers Navigate an Increasingly Complex and Evolving Labor Market

  • Publication: 
    The Aspen Institute and Markle Foundation
    Date: 
    October 23, 2020

    While COVID-19 has led to significant personal and economic devastation, it is also precipitating a permanent structural transformation of the economy. The pandemic and associated economic downturn are accelerating pre-existing trends, shifting more consumers toward e-commerce, more businesses toward automation, and more workers toward teleworking. This transformation means that millions of the jobs recently lost may never return. As economic activity resumes, workers will return to a fundamentally changed labor market. Many workers will need to change occupations and industries, and this change will not be easy.

    In the near term, we must resolve the public health crisis and kick-start the economy through a variety of recovery measures designed to stabilize income, boost labor demand, and create high quality jobs. Yet we also need complementary investments in training and support that will help people adapt to the seismic changes underway and emerge from the crisis ready to access good jobs in a digital economy.

    While we need significantly more funding for effective and accessible training, training alone will not be enough to help people emerge stronger. Without support, workers may struggle to identify good-paying jobs in growing sectors that are a good fit for their current knowledge, skills, and abilities. They may have difficulty determining which of the 700,000 available credentials they should pursue given their existing skills and experience. They may need help finding high quality education and training opportunities necessary to qualify for better-paying jobs.

    The burden of navigating this transition cannot be placed on the worker alone. As policymakers consider solutions to drive an equitable recovery, making high quality coaching available to all workers should be a top priority.

    Coaches provide critical support to all workers, and especially those in transition

    Career coaches provide human-centered, personalized information focused on helping workers make complex, high-stakes decisions. These coaches include counselors who provide career services to unemployed clients at American Job Centers, career advisors at community colleges, and staff at community-based organizations like Goodwill or United Way. They help workers understand how their skills translate to good jobs in industries that are hiring in their community; determine whether education and training will put them in a better position to succeed; compare the available education and training options to determine which programs will best meet their needs; and identify support services during times of transition.

    Research shows that career coaching is an effective way to help workers find jobs faster and earn more. The Workforce Investment Act Gold Standard evaluation found that people who use staff-supported services (e.g., counseling) have higher wages and employment rates than those who have access to only self-service resources. A study by Impaq found that the benefits of WIA’s core and intensive services (of which career counseling is a key component) raise worker earnings by as much as $100-$200 per quarter. Moreover, the benefits of career coaching are so high that it often pays for itself: for example, a study of Nevada’s Reemployment and Eligibility Assessment initiative found that the reemployment services it provided resulted in savings to the UI program that exceed the cost of the services. Training and education programs with statistically significant impacts on the earnings and career trajectories of the individuals they serve, such as YearUp and Project Quest, often include coaching as a core part of their services.

    Coaching suffers from systemic challenges that limit its ability to address the current crisis

    Markle’s Governors Coaching Corps provides a view into the challenges that career coaches face when serving their clients. Even when unemployment was low, insufficient funding limited workers’ access to coaching services and created enormous caseloads. Now, with tens of millions of newly unemployed workers, federal funding is nowhere near sufficient to accommodate the need. Career services at community colleges and community-based organizations are also facing significant budget shortages while adapting to social distancing realities.

    Coaches in the workforce system are measured by the number of people they place into jobs. This rewards coaches for encouraging jobseekers to take the first available offer, even if it is a low wage job that does not use the skills they have already built, or when they could be better served by pursuing education or training that would prepare them for better jobs with higher wages over the course of their career. It also creates the incentive to serve clients with fewest barriers to employment, risking inequitable outcomes by race.

    Despite the critical role they play, coaches cite low pay and high turnover as challenges to successfully supporting their clients. There is virtually no dedicated public funding to equip coaches to build the skills they need to serve their clients. Many coaches are forced to spend much of their time on administrative tasks like scheduling and follow up, because they lack access to technology tools that could free up their time to dedicate to working directly with their clients.

    Expanding access to effective coaching should be an urgent policy priority

    Coaching should be a critical part of efforts to revive the economy and help workers navigate a new economic landscape, especially to help the millions of impacted workers find good jobs that lead to stable careers. Federal policymakers should increase investments in Wagner-Peyser reemployment assistance programs and the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act programs to enable states and local workforce boards to hire and train more job coaches at American Job Centers. They should also provide additional funding to states to create a high-quality coaching support system across all organizations that serve impacted workers.

    Policymakers should focus on the following goals:

    • Hire more coaches. More coaches are needed to ensure every unemployed and low-wage worker can access the career support they need to navigate a rapidly changing economy. Funding should be enough to ensure manageable caseloads for each coach and to ensure that new and current coaches are paid a good salary that better reflects the critical value coaches play. Increasing funding for coaching also would create good paying jobs. These investments can be seen as part of a broader public investment to put Americans back to work by creating quality jobs in sectors that are core to solving the crises facing our society.
    • Provide coaches training and tools. Effective coaching requires a professional skill set. Funding should be dedicated specifically to provide every coach the skills training and tools to effectively serve their clients in a culturally competent way. Markle’s Governors Coaching Corps can be a useful model. It focuses on building a skill set that includes: forging a personal connection to understand a client’s needs and goals, an ability to understand and communicate regional labor market trends, assess relative benefits of different training options, and a better understanding of how to navigate a complex web of available support services.
    • Align performance incentives to across coaching providers to focus on long term career success. The efforts of coaches across the workforce system, community colleges, and community-based organizations should be aligned. Policymakers can start by creating common intake and referral systems and by providing a common baseline of training for coaches across systems. Over time, policymakers should develop common performance incentives for coaches, focused on helping workers improve long-term employment outcomes and increase their wages.
    • Ensure that all populations are served. Universal access to career coaching can be an important component of a broader effort to address racial disparities and other inequities in our workforce system. However, it is important to take steps to encourage equitable delivery of coaching services. Policymakers should require disaggregated data to identify disparities in delivery of coaching. Additional performance-based funding or targets could also serve as a way to ensure that underrepresented groups are served. To reduce bias in the services delivered to clients, explicit efforts should be made to recruit a diverse group of coaches that resemble the communities they are serving. All coaches should be trained in culturally competent practices and given implicit bias training.

    American workers are facing daunting challenges: a pandemic, a recession, and a rapidly transforming economy. Some will need to transition occupations and industries and may need to obtain new skills in growing fields. By extending high quality career coaching to more American workers, we can help Americans navigate this moment and emerge stronger.

    For more details on how to implement ideas proposed in this piece, see Markle’s coaching brief.

    This post was co-authored by the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative and the Markle Foundation. Ethan Pollack is Associate Director for Policy at the Aspen Institute Future of Work Initiative. David Marsh is Senior Manager for State & Federal Policy at the Markle Foundation. Molly Elgin-Cossart also contributed leadership and insights to the project while at Markle.

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