Mott Program Officer Neal Hegarty talks about reducing barriers to employment

Finding and maintaining living-wage employment is key to a life free from poverty. Understanding and addressing barriers to such employment, particularly faced by hard-to-place workers, is an important issue in workforce development. Neal Hegarty, a program officer with Charles Stewart Mott Foundation’s Pathways Out of Poverty Program, shares his thoughts in the following Q&A about strategies for reducing those barriers. The interview was conducted by Mott Communications Officer Duane Elling.

Mott: What is the philosophy behind Mott’s funding in the area of reducing barriers to employment?

Neal Hegarty
Neal Hegarty.

Neal Hegarty: The Foundation has long believed that living-wage employment is key to improving the lives of families and creating strong communities.

But finding and maintaining such jobs can be challenging, especially for disadvantaged people. Globalization, automation and improved efficiencies in the workplace are changing how employment and training programs connect workers to jobs, particularly those that require special skills and provide for wage advancement. And many hard-to-place workers face numerous barriers to employment, such as lack of formal education, and access to transportation and child care.

The Reducing Barriers to Employment grantmaking focuses on helping the workforce development field explore, understand, and address these barriers — and more effectively engage marginally attached workers — through systems change, research and demonstrations of promising models.

Mott: What are we learning about these barriers and their impacts?

Hegarty: One key lesson is that many individuals, particular those from disadvantaged backgrounds, may simultaneously face several barriers to employment. As a result, they often experience significant difficulty in finding and maintaining a job.

That finding was confirmed by the recent Women’s Employment Study, which was conducted at the University of Michigan and funded by Mott. However, the study also found that as barriers were reduced, employment rates rose and participants were able to keep their jobs longer.

Such findings reinforce the idea that workforce development programs need to address barriers if they’re going to help hard-to-place workers succeed in the labor market.

Mott: In what ways does our grantmaking support such strategies?

Hegarty: Our approach centers on research, dissemination, and programs that lead to a greater understanding of the problems faced by low-income people in the labor market.

In an era of increasing globilization, developing a well-trained and effective workforce at all levels of the labor market will be necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive.” Neal Hegarty

For example, the Fathers at Work Initiative — launched by Mott in 2001 — sought to address the employment issues faced by low-income, young, non-custodial dads, including men who were previously incarcerated. The lessons learned by that demonstration, which ends this year, have included the important role that support services play in helping these men increase their employment and child support payments.

In 2004 we launched a demonstration involving several nonprofit alternative staffing programs around the country. These agencies help connect hard-to-place workers with temporary employment opportunities. The demonstration is an exciting venture given the increasing use of temporary workers at all levels of the labor market. It offers us the chance to serve people from various backgrounds, as well as explore new ways to identify, understand and address the challenges that might otherwise keep people out of the workplace and locked into poverty.

Mott: What is the future focus of your grantmaking?

Hegarty: The alternative staffing demonstration I just mentioned will remain our primary focus for the foreseeable future. In addition to helping the programs enhance and refine their service models, we’re also supporting research and analysis of the effects they have on employment rates among hard-to-serve clients. We’re building a body of knowledge around this field and gaining a clearer understanding of what works.

Mott: What other issues and trends are likely to be explored?

Hegarty: In an era of increasing globalization, developing a well-trained and effective workforce at all levels of the labor market will be necessary for the U.S. to remain competitive. The country will also need to ensure that entry level jobs not only contribute to that competitiveness, but also keep people engaged in the workforce by providing living wages and career opportunities. Key to both of these strategies will be effectively connecting job training activities with the nation’s education and workforce development systems.

Tracking public policy and regulations affecting the workforce development system will also be important. The level of federal support for workforce development activities may decrease and/or be sent to the individual states in the form of block grants. We’ll continue to monitor such changes and look for opportunities to help ensure that the system is effective.