Understanding the New Evaluation of WIA: It Doesn’t Say What You Might Think It Says

By Bryan Wilson, January 14, 2019

The long awaited “gold standard” evaluation of the Workforce Innovation Act (WIA) has finally been released, “Providing Public Workforce Services to Job Seekers: 30-month Impact Findings on the WIA Adult and Dislocated Worker Programs. “The Department of Labor released the evaluation the day before the federal partial shutdown. The evaluation was conducted by Mathemtica Policy Research and Social Policy Research Associates. While many in the workforce development field have been anxiously waiting for the results since the evaluation began in 2008, the study does not come to any conclusions one way or the other about the effectiveness of vocational skills training, and it was never designed to.

The researchers looked at the net impacts on employment and earnings for individuals who were randomly assigned to three groups based on the three major types of WIA-funded services: 1) individuals who program staff could offer only WIA-funded core services; 2) individuals who staff could offer only core and intensive services; and 3) the “full WIA group” who program staff could offer WIA-funded core, intensive, and training services. For those unfamiliar with WIA, core services were forms of light touch assistance such as orientations, resources rooms, and on-line assessments; intensive services included career counseling, job search assistance, and prevocational (general workplace) instruction. Training could be class-room based occupational skills training, on-the-job training, other forms of vocational skills training, adult basic education, and postsecondary general education.

There is a big difference between staff being permitted by the study design to offer different types of WIA-funded services, and staff providing the services, and individuals receiving the services. Staff who were permitted by the study design to offer training might not have done so because their local program had run out of training dollars for the year, or for some other reason. Individuals who were offered training might not have enrolled because of personal constraints, such as the need for child care. Half of the group who staff could have theoretically offered WIA-funded training, the “full WIA group,” never received training.

Moreover, the study design did not exclude individuals who could not be offered WIA-funded training from receiving training funded by another source of funds. Many individuals in group two received training that was not funded by WIA. In fact, 22 percent of the group that could receive core and intensive, but not WIA-funded training services, completed a vocational credential funded by other means, while just a slightly higher 27 percent of the “full WIA group” group completed a vocational credential.

Despite this, the report states, “Our findings suggest that providing WIA-funded training did not increase earnings or improve employment-related outcomes in the 30 months after random assignment relative to providing only core and intensive services.” And the report includes a chart entitled, “Does training affect outcomes?” But again, the researchers acknowledge they did not evaluate the effectiveness of receiving, let alone the impact of completing training. “Because differences across groups in rates of enrollment in training were small, our study produced inconclusive evidence on the impact of training.” (p. xxxiii) Unfortunately, this could easily be lost on the reader.

It should also be noted, as the study does, that there have been important changes since the time period evaluated by the study that could affect the results. The Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) was enacted in 2014 to replace WIA. WIOA eliminated WIA’s required sequence of services. Under WIA, staff had to first provide core services to an individual, if the individual were unable to obtain self-sustaining employment, then staff could provide intensive services, if the individual were still unable to obtain self-sustaining employment, then staff could provide training services. Eliminating this required sequence should increase the number of participants who receive training under WIOA compared to WIA. WIOA also includes other changes designed to increase the quality and quantity of training, including an emphasis on partnerships with industry and sectoral training, and the addition of a credential attainment accountability measure. Despite this, the availability of training, which costs more than core or intensive services, continues to be constrained by the long-term decline in the amount of funds appropriated for WIA and now WIOA.