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​Project QUEST: an employment training programme with promising results

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We are always looking for robust evidence offering insight into policies that work. We recently spotted an article in the New York Times that talks about a successful employment training programme, ‘Project QUEST’, mostly targeted at disadvantaged workers in the city of San Antonio, US. In actual fact, QUEST can be categorised as more than a training programme since it also provides personal and academic support. The programme has run for almost thirty years and it was recently evaluated showing positive impacts on participants’ earnings.

Having further researched the findings of Project QUEST from a randomised control trial (RCT) carried out by the Economic Mobility Corporation, I have summarised the outcomes — mainly those related to the labour market — in this blog.

Project QUEST started in the 1990s as a response to the fast-growing low-skilled manufacturing jobs during the 1980s. It prepares low skilled job seekers for employment in growing sectors of the local economy by providing support and resources to help them complete occupational training programmes, pass certification exams and find a job. Specifically, it includes a wide range of services such as financial support for training (e.g. tuition fees for classes, material, transportation cost, licensing exam fees and tutoring); tutoring in maths and English for returning students; counselling to address a variety of issues (including personal concerns); compulsory weekly meetings, and job placement assistance.

The evaluation is based on a pool of applicants from April 2006 to October 2008. Applicants were interested in but not currently seeking training for healthcare occupations, (e.g. a licensed vocational nurse, registered nurse, medical records coder, and surgical, sonography, or radiology technician). From the total pool of applicants considered in the study (410 individuals), around half were randomly selected to participate in the Project QUEST programme (the treated group), while the other half (the control group) did not receive programme support (but they could enrol in college or training on their own). A high share of the participants included in the study were Latino women with children under the age of 18, who had previously worked, but who had also had spells of unemployment and had low annual earnings. Overall, both groups of students — participants and non-participants — shared similar pre-programme characteristics such as gender, age, highest degree earned, annual earnings, housing status, marital status, and having children under the age of 18. (There were some slight differences regarding ethnicity, whether they lived in subsidised housing, if they had a driver’s license, and their self-reported health status. The author controls for these differences to check robustness of the findings.)

This gives us confidence that the difference in mean outcomes between the treated and the control group assesses the average effect of participating in the Project QUEST programme, rather than other factors.

The evaluation used a follow-up survey six years later. Almost 84% of the individuals who participated in the randomised trial responded to the survey with a similar share for the treated and the control group, and with no significant difference in characteristics compared to the 16% of non-respondents.

The findings of most interest to our work are as follows:

  • Participants experienced large and sustained effects on earnings. Three years after the beginning of the trial, participants experienced a $2,286 increase in annual earnings. Six years after, participants’ annual earnings had increased by $5,080 compared to non-participants. The effect seems larger for those participants with the lowest levels of education and for those who dropped out of high school.
  • At the end of the sixth year, participants ended up earning $2 per hour more than non-participants.
  • Even at a follow-up nine years after the programme, effects on earnings persisted — setting this programme apart from other programmes, for which effects tend to fade over time.
  • Participants also showed greater financial stability compared to the non-participants. That is, in the six-year follow-up, they were less likely to report having various financial troubles.
  • The programme was also successful in helping participants to obtain certifications, for example, a healthcare certificate or license, as individuals enrolled in Project QUEST were more likely to obtain certifications as compared to individuals in the control group. However, non-participants were slightly more likely to obtain a college degree during the same six years.

Things to consider:

  • The trial is focused on healthcare occupations. One question that remains unanswered from the evaluation is whether these remarkable results can be extended to other occupations.
  • It is key to understand which elements of the programme are driving these striking results. What makes Project QUEST different from other training programmes performed in the past?
  • Project QUEST participants received almost two years of support from the programme, with an average cost per participant of $10,501. Do benefits outweigh costs? And if yes, is it scalable at the national level?

This job training strategy is being replicated in other communities across the Southwestern United States. We’ll keep following their progress to see whether these initiatives manage to get the same stunning results.