Reporting on the connections between education and work

Missouri tries a new playbook—treating the unemployed like college applicants

The state is working with the company Wiley to recruit dislocated workers for education and training, rather than waiting for them to show up.
Downtown Springfield, Missouri. The Ozarks region was one of three targeted in an 8-week pilot focused on getting more unemployed residents into job training. (Ted PAGEL via Shutterstock)

Millions of unemployed Americans qualify for federal benefits as dislocated workers, but only a small fraction of them participate in free education and training that could get them back on their feet. In Missouri, it’s only about 4 percent.

Dissatisfied with that, the state is trying something new: Instead of waiting for unemployed residents to come to them, they’re recruiting.

“We want to move to more of an admissions and coaching mindset, instead of: You walk into the workforce center, and we show you how to navigate the computer and ask you to answer 97,000 questions,” says Mardy Leathers, director of the state’s Office of Workforce Development.

To help make the shift, the state is working with Wiley, a publisher and online program management (OPM) company that is increasingly interested in supporting state workforce initiatives.  

The new partnership builds on an 8-week recruitment pilot run last year, and will focus on data analysis to better understand the target population, employer needs, and skills gaps in particular areas of the state. Both the state and Wiley expect it to then expand to a broader service agreement.

The ultimate goal is to connect at least 100,000 residents a year with targeted career services and training.

The big idea: The partnership is a novel spin on recruiting approaches that online universities and OPMs have refined over the past 20 years as they worked to expand the market for working learners. The OPM model is not without critics—but it’s certainly helped make adult online education one of the few growth spots in higher education, even before the pandemic.

The partnership between Wiley and Missouri perhaps signals a new phase focused on broader workforce training—a move that will require providers to serve some of the most vulnerable and hardest to reach adults in the country.

“It’s an area of growth that we’re focused on for the future,” says Shruti Khare, senior director of product operations management at Wiley. “It has an immense amount of need.”

Making a big shift, but starting small

The Missouri initiative will be run through Wiley Beyond, an arm of the company that manages education benefits for employers. It provides research—helping companies understand their incumbent workers’ skills, growth needs, and education options—as well as counseling and enrollment services.

“What we started to see is that the arc of customer needs is similar for a company and a state,” says Khare. “The state just has much bigger needs.”

The new work with Missouri’s Office of Workforce Development will start with in-depth data analysis focused on better understanding the unemployed and underemployed population in the state at the city and regional level—including whether they are interested in additional education, and if so, how they want to get it.

It also will include professional development for staff in the state’s job centers, focused on best practices in recruitment, counseling, and understanding consumer preferences, Leathers says.

That represents a new approach for the state. “We’ve been very much thinking from our vantage point,” he says. “We have to shift to remain relevant—not just in delivering our services, but also in thinking about, How do people want to consume our services?”

“We’re realizing that it’s about consumer preferences, not about how we can best deliver something.”

The initial three-year contract with Wiley will cost Missouri $200,000 a year—though both partners expect that to expand to include more services.

A test case: Before launching the partnership, Wiley and the state tested the idea with an 8-week pilot focused on three regions of the state and several thousand prospects on state unemployment insurance rolls.

Wiley also identified additional candidates through social media and search ads. States are prohibited from using federal workforce funds for advertising, and Leathers said the pilot was designed to test the potential payoff of using state funds for that purpose.

The broader goal of the pilot was to engage unemployed workers and ultimately get them to enroll in training supported by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. The project had a particular focus on enrolling residents in CompTIA certification programs, because Missouri has identified tech as a high-demand field.

  • Initially, it took the state 9 attempts to make contact with a prospect. The pilot reduced that to an average of 2.4 attempts.
  • Texting, which the state had not used before, was especially effective. It took only two texts to get someone to opt out or schedule a counseling appointment.

Even so, hundreds of residents had unusable data, couldn’t be reached, or weren’t interested in training.

  • Of the roughly 2,450 residents Wiley was able to engage, 84 ended up enrolled in a CompTIA program and another 276 pursued some other form of WIOA training or services, according to documents provided by the state.
  • That translates to an enrollment rate of about 15 percent across all programs and services.

That, Leathers says, was a big improvement on the kind of response his office typically sees, and it helped make the case for more active recruiting. “It was amazing how many people they were able to serve,” he says.

Looking ahead: Now, the partners are hoping those numbers hold as they expand the work across the state and to a much wider group of residents. Other states will almost certainly be watching.

“Every state is responding to this changing dynamic in the market,” Leathers says. “There’s a huge appetite, and we’re all sharing and seeing what we can learn from one another.”

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