Motivational Interviewing Can Spur Positive Change for Jobseekers with Barriers to Employment

By David T. Applegate, Research and Policy Assistant, National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity


For many people who’ve experienced chronic unemployment, the first barrier to getting and keeping a job may be overcoming reservations about taking the necessary steps to pursue employment. What employment service providers may interpret as lack of motivation or unwillingness to change is more often low self-confidence, self-doubt, feeling overwhelmed, or simply not knowing how to change. An emerging practice in the workforce development field is the use of Motivational Interviewing (MI) to help jobseekers with barriers to employment overcome ambivalence and anxiety about the need to engage in behavior change. Here, we give an overview of MI and how it can help jobseekers with barriers to employment get on the path to success.

But first, what is Motivational Interviewing? 

The Motivational Interviewing Network of Trainers (MINT) defines MI as “a form of collaborative conversation for strengthening a person’s own motivation and commitment to change.” MI originated as an effective practice for helping people overcome alcohol addiction, and over time it’s been recognized as a strategy that can successfully help people overcome ambivalence toward change in a wide variety of contexts. Both SAMHSA and the United States Interagency Council on Homelessness (USICH) endorse MI as an evidence-based counseling strategy that can help people recognize their desire for change and their ability to make change happen.

Research supports MI in the context of employment services.
MI has been identified as a useful tool for workforce development professionals and an effective intervention for helping vulnerable jobseekers who might be thinking about employment overcome the self-doubts and hesitations holding them back from actively committing to seeking a job.

There are four core principles to MI that employment program providers can use as they work with jobseekers with barriers to employment:

  • Express understanding
  • Acknowledge self-efficacy
  • Accept resistance
  • Support recognition of the need for change

In practice, this means that employment program providers can let participants know that they understand why participants may be ambivalent about pursuing employment as part of achieving their goals; guide participants in recognizing they do have the ability to make change happen and that employment is an attainable goal; accept when participants still express skepticism and avoid confrontation; and support participants in recognizing where in their life they need to change if they are to reach their goals. As the MI process unfolds, the goal is that program participants see the value and possibility of employment, recognize that they do have the ability to pursue their ambitions, and commit themselves to actively seeking employment.

MI shows great potential for widespread use among employment programs as an effective way to help jobseekers begin to overcome barriers to employment. When program participants see employment as something that they want, need, and are able to achieve, then they’ve already overcome their first barrier to getting and keeping a job.

Want to learn more?
Check out this
workbook from the Department of Health & Human Services’ Welfare Peer TA Network and MINT’s resources page for trainings, publications, and more about how to effectively use Motivational Interviewing.


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About National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity

Heartland Alliance’s National Initiatives on Poverty & Economic Opportunity is dedicated to ending chronic unemployment and poverty. We believe that every person deserves the opportunity to succeed in work and support themselves and their families. Through our field building, we provide support and guidance that fosters more effective and sustainable employment efforts. Our policy and advocacy work advances solutions to the systemic issues that drive chronic unemployment.

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