Centering community partners in research: One research team’s experience and advice

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Alexander Bartik
Bryan Stuart
Photo: Michigan Works! Southwest

This guest post is authored by Alexander Bartik of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Bryan Stuart of George Washington University.

Automation, rising inequality between high- and low-income earners, stagnating educational attainment, and other labor market trends have the potential to impact millions of workers across North America and the world. 

Many workers have jobs with insufficient benefits or protections, lack access to jobs that pay living wages, or lack the necessary skills or education to progress within their industries in the face of new technologies.

J-PAL's new Work of the Future Initiative was created to answer the large, outstanding questions about how society can best address and adapt to these changes while centering and prioritizing the well-being of workers. 

The Initiative's Innovation Competition provides organizations focused on workers and the changing nature of work with support to rigorously evaluate their programs to better understand their impact.

Potential applicants include workforce development service providers, government agencies, nonprofits, and other organizations developing innovative solutions to the challenges facing modern workers.

J-PAL will provide selected partners with technical support and will work with them to design a randomized evaluation appropriate for their context. Competition winners may also be connected with academic researchers in J-PAL's network who are interested in similar research questions for mentorship and guidance.   

J-PAL is hosting a webinar on June 26 to provide more information on the competition and how to apply, so we thought that we could take this opportunity to share a bit about our own community partnership and why we think the competition is such an exciting opportunity for practitioners and researchers.

We are a research team trying to better understand how workers are responding to changes in the job market. With support from J-PAL, we’ve had the wonderful opportunity to partner with a workforce development organization called Michigan Works! Southwest to design and run a randomized evaluation.

Our questions

Before our partnership began, we had two main questions we wanted to explore:

1. Do job seekers understand what job opportunities are available to them?

2. If job seekers were given personalized, accurate information about opportunities, how would that change their understanding of the job market, their job searches, the jobs they receive, and their salaries?

To answer these broad questions, we wanted to partner with an organization who was already doing the important work of serving job seekers in their community. This is how we connected with Michigan Works! Southwest.

Our partner

Michigan Works! Southwest serves a region of over 500,000 residents across four counties in Michigan. Their mission is to connect job seekers to employers, training providers, and educators, and they are constantly thinking through how they can better serve their clients.

We knew that with the combination of their practical knowledge and our background in academic research, we could form a powerful partnership to investigate these questions.

Our evaluation design process

Our first few conversations with Ben Damerow, Executive Director of Michigan Works! Southwest, made it clear that before we designed our study, we needed to see the job centers in action. We made several trips to the Michigan Works! Southwest centers where we spoke extensively with staff and clients about their experiences.

Staff also offered key insights that helped shape our goals for this project. For instance, they were particularly concerned about individuals who came to  job centers but did not qualify for in-person counseling. They also believed that the centers could be more efficient with access to better, real-time data on client needs and service usage. 

With all of this information in mind, we—the research team and the Michigan Works! Southwest staff—decided on steps forward that would both increase job center productivity and enable our team to collect the data necessary for an evaluation. These updates included a new, digital client intake system as well as a website and smartphone app for job seekers. With these new structures in place, we are able to begin the evaluation.

Our study

We will launch the preliminary stages of the evaluation this month. Here’s what that will look like on the ground:

All Michigan Works! Southwest clients will take an intake survey about their background and preferences. They will also have an option to take a baseline survey on their perceptions of the job market. These surveys will be done on tablets, desktop computers at Michigan Works! Southwest centers, and cell phones. 

Those who take the baseline survey will be randomly assigned to the treatment or control group. While the control group will receive the same information currently provided by Michigan Works! Southwest, the treatment group will receive personalized job recommendations based on their labor market experience and preferences, detailed information about what particular jobs entail, and access to live job postings.

We’ll measure outcomes such as job search behavior, job placement, and salary through follow-up surveys and Michigan’s unemployment insurance data.

At the end of the evaluation, we’ll be able to see whether or not providing personalized, detailed, real-time information about the job market can improve outcomes for job seekers. This information will not only help answer our initial research questions about the effect of inaccurate understandings of the job market, but it will also provide Michigan Works! Southwest with valuable insight on how they can best serve their clients.

Our advice

Our ability to run this evaluation would not have been possible without the Michigan Works! Southwest team and J-PAL’s Work of the Future Initiative. That’s why we’re so excited that J-PAL is providing a similar opportunity to practitioners nationwide through the Work of the Future Innovation Competition.

This competition provides innovators with the chance to build partnerships with researchers similar to the one we’ve built with Michigan Works! Southwest. It’s a unique and exciting opportunity for organizations to answer the big questions about their work, learn what’s going well, and discover what can be improved.

As a research team that knows the value of a practitioner partnership, we truly encourage interested organizations to learn more from the webinar on June 26, and to apply to the competition by July 31.