DHS: Empowering Disadvantaged Pennsylvanians to Support a Vibrant Workforce

By Secretary Teresa Miller


When you think of the Department of Human Services, what comes to mind?


Medicaid, public assistance, child care. Your first thought is likely not workforce development. I can understand why.


DHS is Pennsylvania’s largest state agency, serving approximately 3 million Pennsylvanians every day. Our work in health care, child welfare, early childhood education, services for people with disabilities, and public assistance gives us a multitude of opportunities for positive interventions for Pennsylvanians we serve. We take that responsibility and opportunity very seriously, but we cannot let these programs be our only investment. We are committed to helping the people we serve forge pathways to self-sufficiency and a better life.


We hear a lot lately about work requirements for Medicaid and more stringent requirements for some other programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, both in Pennsylvania and around the country. Governor Tom Wolf and I have discussed the harmful consequences of these requirements on numerous occasions, but to be clear, we do want people to work and break the cycle of poverty. The challenge, though, is how we get people to a place where they can succeed in employment.


Over the past year, we set out to reimagine the guiding vision for our employment and training programs and make changes necessary to help more people achieve lasting success in employment. As we looked at our data for some of our TANF employment and training programs, we realized that our system was built to meet work requirements as opposed to offering an approach leading to meaningful, sustainable work. Programs helped our participants “check the box.” They were meeting their work requirements by attending soft-skills trainings, spending time job searching and finding jobs, but according to our data, those jobs weren’t necessarily helping them get a step up. Of the 14,500 people who participated in Employment Advancement and Retention Network programs in 2017-2018, about 5,000 enrollees found jobs. After six months, however, fewer than 10 percent were still employed.


It’s easy to understand why. These programs were designed to help participants comply with a work requirement, not to overcome the many barriers to employment that many people face every day. Barriers such as lack of consistent child care, no or unreliable transportation, physical and mental health challenges, and education or training gaps make it difficult for people in poverty to find and keep jobs. These are obstacles anyone can face, but when you’re living in poverty and caring for yourself and your family on limited means, it becomes significantly more difficult to obtain the necessary resources you need. Even if a person finds a job, it may not pay enough to overcome these barriers and allow them to truly support their families. Many families supported by DHS programs work full-time and yet still need assistance. We may all need to be nimble and resourceful to get by at times, but if you’re always focused on survival, how can you get ahead?


This is why we are redesigning our employment and training programs to take a more individualized, intentional approach that focuses on clients’ individual goals, challenges and barriers, and looks not just at job placement but long-term success in employment. We do see this focus being incorporated gradually across the workforce development system, but we are hoping to collaborate with our partners, including businesses, to broaden this work. We are building a more robust employment and training system that allows us to better serve people so they can achieve self-sufficiency, improve their well-being and connection within their community, and grow our economy by supporting underserved communities on their pathway to employment and forging connections with this population and employers. 


As we move towards this vision, we need support and partnership from leaders in business and industry to make these goals possible. We often hear how strong the economy is right now and that businesses are struggling to meet their workforce needs due to low unemployment. That is true, but we know that there is still a lot of economic instability even among working people. Many people are underemployed and working multiple jobs or still turning to public assistance to make ends meet.


DHS’s clients are a historically underserved workforce because they may require more support or investment in skills training or other post-secondary education, but they want to work and make a better life for themselves. I see it happening every day in DHS programs around Pennsylvania.


A perfect example of this is our SNAP 50/50 partnerships, which leverage private and public funds from the federal government to support SNAP recipients on a pathway to jobs that pay living wages. There are currently 17 SNAP 50/50 partnerships around Pennsylvania offering trainings in a variety of fields from culinary arts and food service, masonry and hospitality to horticulture, health care, and machining, among others, and we are actively working to recruit and on-board new partnerships. These programs typically work in small, short-term cohorts, but take an intensive approach to both job skills training and soft skills development to empower participants to learn quickly in team environments and turn their training into success in the workforce. Many of the programs I’ve visited are placing people into jobs earning well above minimum wage, and program participants often leave their training with employment secured. These programs are changing lives, and they are proof that investing in people with barriers to employment can benefit both the individuals and employers.


These are the kind of outcomes we hope to replicate through our reimagined system. This is our chance to start thinking about employment services and connections in a new, meaningful way and partner with all of you to accomplish these goals. We are prepared to approach this from multiple angles with multiple agencies and local and private sector partners to truly provide comprehensive, whole-person support that leverages the expertise of all involved in the economic development of our state.  This will allow for a more coordinated, efficient and effective delivery system that will have a deeper impact than simply requiring people to get a job. It’s an investment, but underserved communities and people deserve these opportunities and support. We are going to help people take that step up and create a stronger Pennsylvania for all of us. But we cannot do this alone, and we are happy to work with you to make this vision and work possible on a broader scale.


I hope you’ll join us.

Teresa Miller is secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services.


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