Personal Development

How I Overcame...Taking Steps to Humanize Workforce Development

Did you know that in the law surrounding workforce development, the term self-sufficiency is used 23 times?

Probably not.  I mean, who really reads the law?

I dug deep because I've been on a track to humanize service delivery methods in social services. I wanted to see what the real goal is for helping people move from government assistance to self-sufficiency. Even with the use of this term 23 times, there is not a single definition of what it means to be self-sufficient.

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Since there is no one definition of what it means to be self-sufficient, each state and local region can create its own definition.  The law lists eligible outcomes as employment, retention, independence and earnings; however, the concept of self-sufficiency has been oversimplified to mean gaining employment and no longer needing government assistance. It does not consider the complexities of human behavior in today’s workplace and does not consider the psychological impact that poverty has on the low-income job seeker.

What is real self-sufficiency?

According to psychology experts, self-sufficiency is different for each family and while it’s important to track wages and the ability to be financially independent, being fully self-sufficient requires being stable psychologically as well as financially. The law dictates that a TANF recipient has a 60-month lifetime limit to receive government assistance.  Think about that in terms how long it takes to find employment.  Alison Doyle, a highly regarded career expert, says it can take one month for every $10,000 earned to find employment - for the average, skilled job seeker.  This converts to six months for a candidate seeking $60,000 in earnings. Factors, for the average job seeker, include the credentials of the job seeker, the length of time one is unemployed, the amount of time and energy devoted to the job search.  These factors are considering the job seeker is confident, educated and hopeful that he/she has a skill set to offer the employer – not likely for many the low-income candidates we serve.

What’s missing?  Hope!

Hope is the missing component to tracking outcomes for self-sufficiency in the area of workforce development among low-income job seekers.  Social workers, case managers and job coaches are keenly aware of the legal program requirements for gaining and retaining employment, however, much of that retention is lost due to a lack of ability to handle what can be an overwhelming life filled with demanding children and sometimes having to make a choice between food and clothing. Many of those unemployed for prolonged periods of time have lost hope of finding employment and providing for their families.  Hope is a much needed, and typically amiss, characteristic among low-income job seekers.

Empowerment is another missing link in the WIOA program requirements.  Creating genuine self-sufficiency requires coaching low-income job seekers to empower themselves which gives them the intangible ability to move themselves forward.  Empowerment gives low-income job seekers the permission to make changes that will benefit them and their families. 

This is personal.

For me, workforce development is personal.  I’ve been on both sides of the desk. I’ve seen first hand how much the mental state and self-esteem contribute to becoming self-sufficient.  I’ve seen first hand how case managers and social workers have created expectations for job seekers without fully taking into account the true desires and goals of the candidates. 

Outcomes are about more than getting a job. 

Outcomes are about empowering our candidates. 

Outcomes are about giving hope to our candidates when life is overwhelming. 

Outcomes are about teaching our candidates how to breathe.

That is how you humanize human services.

Carla Harris is the CEO of ImageWorks and the author of the forthcoming book Faith Works: An Innovative Approach to Workforce Development, to be released April 30, 2018.  Ms. Harris is available for coaching, training and leading train-the-trainer programs for social service professionals. She can be reached at 202-450-4246 or  Visit our website at You may also pre-order your copy of Faith Works here.