When we stop comparing apples and oranges.

June 04, 2013

The gaps are widening. The skills gap that keeps workers from filling available jobs. The income gap that further divides the rich and the poor. The information gap between our current understanding and what we need to know to solve these ongoing problems.

We know that getting workers the skills they need to fill the 3.5 million available jobs will help close these gaps and lift more people out of poverty and into lives of self-sufficiency. But where can low-skill, low-income workers get the education and training they need, at an affordable price, when education costs are skyrocketing and waiting lists can be months or even years long?

One answer is found in programs offered by community based organizations (CBOs) as a first step on the pathway to sustainable employment. There is a growing need for these types of programs, but we know very little about their outcomes relative to other educational programs and institutions. Without the data to show their effectiveness, it’s difficult to justify investments of human and financial resources to support them. It’s also nearly impossible to distinguish the successful from the challenged in an effort to make improvements and cuts where they need to be made.

Until now, that is.

A new report from the national Benchmarking Project offers an unprecedented opportunity to examine the results of CBOs’ efforts to help jobseekers find and keep employment.

The Benchmarking Project launched in 2004 to understand what “good” performance looks like for different types of workforce development programs. The aggregate data from 332 programs in 200 organizations – mostly CBOs – represent the largest collection of outcomes information to date for programs serving America’s disadvantaged job seekers.

The report, “Apples to Apples: Making Data Work for Community-Based Workforce Development Programs”, presents themes that emerged from the data and offers meaningful comparison groups for different programs. While the data do not “prove” the effectiveness of any one approach, it’s an important first step to closing the information gap. This report can help funders, providers and other stakeholders set more realistic expectations for performance, make better-informed decisions about program design, and eventually make progress toward narrowing the stubborn skill and income gaps that continue to divide the country.