Workplace Center Recognized for Role in Helping Foster Youth Get Jobs

February 4 @ 6:39 pm
By Communications Office*

Finding interventions to support foster youth make the transition into the world of work is a challenge—but it is the kind of challenge Columbia School of Social Work’s Center for Social Policy and Practice in the Workplace (Workplace Center) embraces.

The transition to adulthood can be agonizing for anyone, but for youth who are aging out of foster care, it is a daunting prospect. Losing the supports they received while in care, they are likely to become homeless, unemployed, underemployed, incarcerated, or to parent too early.

Founded in 1969 with the mission of creating access to careers for those with life circumstances that often undermine labor force participation, the Workplace Center has focused on special populations such as young people aging out of foster care. For over a decade it has researched, developed programs, and provided training and technical assistance to foster care agencies nationally, including in New York City and across New York State.

And now the Workplace Center shares in the kudos for an innovative project it became involved with in Rhode Island—the creatively named Works Wonders™. A Children’s Bureau-funded public-private partnership, Works Wonders™ is spearheaded by the Providence-based nonprofit Foster Forward.

At the end of 2018, Works Wonders™ had the honor of receiving the Innovations in American Government Award from the Ash Center at Harvard Kennedy School in recognition of its success in providing foster care youth the skills and support they need to connect with the world of work. The Rhode Island initiative was the unanimous choice of the selection committee because of its groundbreaking approach to filling the need for an evidence-informed and developmentally appropriate approach to career support for youth in foster care. The program fills that need through a mixture of peer support, career path planning, the opportunity to learn the concrete skills needed to get and keep jobs as well as soft skills expected by employers, and hands-on work experience.

Lauren Gates, director of the Workplace Center and a senior research scientist at the School of Social Work, said: “We are extremely proud of our involvement with Works Wonders and its ability to increase vulnerable populations’ connections to the world of work and access to economic security.” 

She noted that when Foster Forward had first approached the Workplace Center about becoming one of five partners in the initiative, her team did not hesitate. “We like to work with multi-system collaborations,” she said, adding that this collaborative element, which included the youth themselves, is one of the reasons the intervention did so well. “This multi-system collaboration and the consistent participation of young people in development and implementation helped ensure the program’s success,” she explained.

The Workplace Center’s contribution consisted of designing a skills-based curriculum for youth between the ages of 14 and 21and then evaluating the success of the program after it had run for three years. According to the Workplace Center findings, there was a significant increase among the foster youth who participated in Works Wonders™ who entered the workforce during this period.

As a result of winning this award, Works Wonders™ will receive $50,000 and support for scale-up. Meanwhile, the Workplace Center plans to apply the insights gleaned from this project to other child welfare jurisdictions.

To learn more about the Workplace Center and their services, please see workplacecenter.columbia.edu.

To learn more about what Works Wonders™ does, please watch this video:


*The visual for this article was adapted from a Foster Forward infographic (PDF: 1 page).