At this point in your SWFI grant, you likely have strong community partnerships, clear ideas about how to reach those you’d like to recruit, and even some participants who have completed training and achieved their employment goals. But recruitment and retention can still be a challenge, narrowing the pipeline of participants and making it more difficult to achieve programmatic and grant goals in training and employment. It may seem counterintuitive, but this point in the grant period can be an opportunity to step back, and to trace your prospective participant (and future graduate’s) path from Day 1.

Behavioral science traces the decisions people make: the large decisions – like pursuing further education or leaving a job – and the smaller, everyday decisions – like skipping a day of training or taking five extra minutes to read to a child before bedtime. Program designers often focus on those big decisions. Not without good reason: programs like SWFI try to catch prospective participants when they’re poised to make a change in their lives. But all of us who try to make big changes have to realize that making a big change is really a series of small decisions.  Rarely does a participant just decide, all at once, to drop out of a program like SWFI. Instead, they might get overwhelmed by the requirements or the logistics of fitting training into their life. They skip a class, and then another. They fail a credentialing exam, and they don’t come back.

So let’s go back to Day 1, before any of that has happened. Once a participant hears about your SWFI program, do they know the next action to take? Do they have a clear idea of the documentation they’ll need to bring to a first appointment? Does your flyer mention the bus route that will get them to orientation? Think about all of the tiny decisions that will have to be made to get them in the door. This could involve role-playing by staff, making a decision tree that captures all of the possible outcomes, or interviewing past participants. Staff should also dig into data that captures when participants drop out of the program, if that is available.

Programs can make all of the decisions that lead to retention and graduation easier for participants, but those participants will still need some intrinsic motivation. Even when ideally designed, SWFI and similar programs are challenging for participants: they require long hours, lengthy trainings, and navigation of complex systems of child care, training, and employment. Behavioral prompts are useful, relatively easy to implement strategies for fostering that motivation and commitment.

One SWFI grantee, Total Action for Progress (TAP), located in Roanoke, VA, has built what behavioral scientists might call a “commitment device” into their intake process. Participants complete an application, do a TABE or CareerScope Assessment, and participate in an orientation. Then, they receive what TAP staff call the “Funding Plan.” Depending on the participant, this itemized list includes the cost of the training course, a detailed child care plan, and supplemental materials like scrubs, bus passes, computer and internet costs, and vaccines. Of course, the SWFI participant won’t be paying those costs – they’re covered by TAP. But staff emphasize to participants that this is an investment. Participants are investing in themselves, and TAP is investing in them. When a participant is considering skipping a day of training, they might remember the amount that TAP has spent on them. David Moore, TAP’s SWFI Project Director, emphasizes that staff present the Funding Plan in an upbeat and positive way, focusing on their belief in the participant’s abilities and commitment.

Participant goal setting, another method of bolstering motivation, is common in workforce training programs like SWFI, but is not always applied in a way that maximizes its behavioral value. For some programs, participants might set large goals (“I want to be a nurse”) on the first day of orientation, or in the intake meeting. Think about how your program uses goal-setting as a motivation and as a retention device. Are goals revisited throughout a participant’s time in SWFI? Do they discuss what achieving that goal will look like and require day-to-day? Are big goals broken into chunks that are easier to achieve, helping participants build confidence? Discuss with your colleagues on the discussion board.

Please note, the intent of this blog post is to share examples of different behavioral prompts that SWFI grantees may find useful.  Any questions regarding allowable use of grant funds or changes to your project’s strategies should be directed to your Federal Project Officer (FPO).

Further reading:

  • This Practioners Playbook for Applying Behavioral Insights to Labor Programs provides a step-by-step resource on improving program design, performance, and outcomes using insights and strategies from behavioral science.

  • Use this checklist to learn more about how small tweaks in communications can improve outcomes.

  • Review the tip sheet on recruiting and retaining SWFI participants if your program is still facing challenges around finding potential participants.

  • Visit the Consumer Centered Design Community of Practice and its Resource Library to learn how to assess the needs and wants of SWFI participants as you develop behavioral prompts. A recent webinar on Gaining Sustainability Through Customer Centered Design may also be useful to SWFI grantees.

  • To learn how to identify “bottlenecks” – moments where a program isn’t achieving its desired outcomes – review this case study on using behavioral insights to improve social service programs.

  • A commitment device is anything that an individual does to restrict or guide future choices. The example most economists use is when Odysseus, traveling home over the course of The Odyssey, ties himself to the mast of his ship to avoid being lured away by the song of the Sirens. He knows his long-term goal (to get home) is in direct conflict with what he’ll want to do in the short-term (follow the alluring music), so he makes that short-term choice more difficult for his future self. To learn more about commitment devices in health care (where much of the research on making good choices comes from), read Commitment Devices: Using Initiatives to Change Behavior.

  • Practitioners and researchers have used behavioral science to develop a wide range of goal-setting approaches, like SMART Goals, WOOF, and more. Discuss your favorite approach on the discussion board.

  • Read this report to learn more about goal attainment and self-regulation skills, which may be an element of the “soft skills” your program participants gain through SWFI. 

To learn more about using behavioral interventions specifically for people returning to work after an illness or injury, review this report.