Growing Careers: FarmWorks Combines Transitional Jobs + Contextualized Learning
By Caitlin C. Schnur, Workforce Research and Policy Fellow, NTJN
With the weather in Chicago (finally!) warming up, the National Transitional Jobs Network (NTJN) team traveled to East Garfield Park to visit FarmWorks, an urban farm developed by Heartland Human Care Services (HHCS) that provides transitional jobs (TJ) to low-income residents overcoming barriers to employment. Splitting their time between the farm and the Greater Chicago Food Depository, transitional workers develop employable skills in urban farming, landscaping, and warehousing and distribution.
While the workers gain experience that will help them obtain entry-level work, FarmWorks realizes that entry-level jobs are a first step, not an end goal, for TJ participants. “HHCS has run TJ programming for many years, and we’ve also been working on enhancements to the TJ model to ensure participant success in career pathways that lead to self-sufficiency,” says Jay Landau, HHCS’ Director of Education and Program Development. To this end, FarmWorks has integrated its TJ program with a contextualized adult learning curriculum so that workers can build literacy and numeracy skills along with knowledge of career pathways with family-sustaining wages.
With FarmWorks’ strategy already showing positive results, the NTJN sat down with Jay and Dave Snyder, FarmWorks’ Program Manager, to talk about how this promising program design can help workers succeed and advance on the job.
NTJN: What is contextualized adult learning?
Jay Landau: Contextualized adult learning is the development of literacy or numeracy skills in the context of a real-world situation that’s relevant to the learner. For example, for an adult learner who’s interested in pursuing a career in nursing, the learning materials that make up a contextualized curriculum would be relevant to that career path.
Dave Snyder: At the farm, we have a lesson that talks about each of the different vegetables we grow. There’s a three to four page description of each vegetable that covers how it’s planted, cared for, and harvested and also explains what you do with that vegetable after it’s harvested. Everyone in the class gets assigned a different crop, reads about it, and then presents that crop’s information to the class. That way, the whole class learns more about the farm’s vegetables, and participants are also working on their reading, reading comprehension, and public presentation skills.
NTJN: Why is contextualized adult learning an effective education strategy for people with low literacy or math skills?
Jay Landau: Unfortunately,individuals with low literacy and math skills typically haven’t had a positive experience with “traditional” K through 12 education. Contextualized adult learning can be an effective education strategy for this group because the curriculum is very tangible—participants can see how what they’re reading or the math problems they’re working on in the classroom connects to their lives and their goals. Contextualized learning makes the learning process relevant, and that’s very important.
Dave Snyder: I’d also add that the way people connect the lessons to their lives is diverse—different information is relevant and interesting to different people. For example, one of our participants was really interested in the economics of farming. He wanted to know things like, “How much do seeds cost? How many plants can you fit in a given area, and what can you sell them for?” So he brought an entrepreneurial perspective to the lessons. We had another participant who was interested in holistic medicine and how the different plants and vegetables could benefit people’s health, so she really responded to the part of the curriculum that talks about health and wellness.
NTJN: How can integrating transitional jobs (TJ) with contextualized adult learning help participants access career pathways with opportunities for advancement?
Jay Landau: A lot of our TJ participants have low literacy or math skills, and that’s a barrier for them as they strive to move beyond entry-level work after they complete their transitional jobs. Incorporating contextualized adult learning into our TJ programming gives participants the opportunity to build academic skills that will serve them in the future as they take steps like pursing a professional certification, vocational training, or further education—steps that we know are key to accessing jobs with family-sustaining wages. We also intentionally incorporate learning about career pathways in manufacturing, urban agriculture, and food distribution and warehousing into our curriculum, and we make sure that participants understand the education, training, and skills that are required to move up in those pathways. What’s great is that through their transitional jobs, participants are acquiring many of the skills they’ll need to access these career pathways.
Dave Snyder: What’s also great is that our participants are finding jobs in the sectors that we’re preparing them for. Warehousing and distribution is a big sector, and that’s been a consistent source of jobs for our participants. And I think it’s important that we send our participants into these sectors with knowledge of the credentials they’ll need to advance—that makes different, higher-skilled positions seem in reach and helps our participants make long-term career plans. In my conversations with participants, they’re not just asking, “Where am I going to get a job?” but “Where will the job I get lead me?” It’s really important that people think about that, and our curriculum is helping them do so.
NJTN: What types of outcomes are you seeing among your participants?
Jay Landau: We’re seeing great outcomes. We’ve seen many participants increase their reading and math scores by one or more grade levels over just 12 weeks. We’ve also seen gains in our participants’ self-confidence, communication and interview skills, and their ability to work in teams since we’ve integrated the contextualized learning curriculum into the TJ program. Using this strategy, we’ve seen increases in both the percentage of our TJ participants who are placed into unsubsidized jobs as well as their average starting hourly wage. In 2013, 92 percent of our program completers obtained unsubsidized jobs—that’s up from 71 percent in 2012—and their average starting wage reached $10.02/hour for the first time.
NTJN: What guidance or advice do you have for other programs looking to integrate TJ and contextualized adult learning?
Jay Landau: I would say that in developing a contextualized learning curriculum to be integrated with TJ programming, it’s definitely important to talk with employer partners to get their input into what soft and hard skills should be incorporated into the curriculum. This leads to buy-in with employers, because they believe in the curriculum and training and are more likely to hire people who have completed it. Reaching out to employer partners will also give you access to their industry expertise, which is important as you’re developing materials for a contextualized curriculum. I’d also say that if you believe that this type of integration is important, don’t wait for the ideal time to start it because there will never be one! We started this program without any specific funding to develop the curriculum or hire an instructor—we made the decision that it was important and would provide a richer experience for our participants, so we dove right in. Now that we’ve developed the model and it’s been showing positive outcomes, we can use our success to raise additional funds to support the program—but in the beginning it required a lot of leveraging of collective resources.
Dave Snyder: I think Jay’s advice about building relationships with employers is really important. It’s important that as you put together a strategy like this that you don’t lose sight of the larger picture, which is to help people with barriers to employment find and keep jobs—and that requires having strong relationships with employer partners. Being able to have a stable, full-time job is one of the most important things for improving a person’s life, and ensuring that our participants are getting jobs that they like and will succeed in is hugely important.