Encouraging Career Asset Building Among Low-Income Individuals

By Amy Johnson

Today, too many women do not earn enough to support their families. Nearly half of women working full-time earn less than $30,000 a year. Women are clustered in the lowest-paying, lowest-opportunity jobs in the economy. Few of these jobs offer training or opportunities to advance, so advancement is limited to small increments in weekly or hourly pay at best. Opportunities to advance are also limited by inadequate skills and limited education, lack of career planning information and career planning skills, and unfamiliarity with the labor market with no techniques to navigate it.

Researching the Career Planning Experiences of Lower-Income Women

With this perspective, Women Employed, a leading national advocate for women's economic advancement, examined the conditions in lower-income women's lives that influence their career decision-making and planning. How do they choose jobs? How do they choose fields? What stresses and supports do they have when making these decisions? What resources do they draw on?

We interviewed 24 women about their experiences in choosing and finding employment. The women ranged from 22 to over 60 years old, were African-American, white and Hispanic, and represented a variety of industries. None were college graduates, and none earned over $24,000 annually.

The key findings from our research are:

  • Most respondents have career goals.
  • Respondents are only familiar with the careers of those close to them.
  • Past job experiences do not inspire respondents to develop career goals.
  • Institutions primarily help respondents develop soft skills and find jobs.
  • Respondents work hard at finding jobs.
  • Respondents put the needs of their family above their own job satisfaction.
  • Respondents want more education, but they don't have time to pursue it.

Based on these findings, we recommend creating an environment and practices that help lower-income women build "career assets" -- the skills, experience, contacts, and knowledge that will help them advance to better jobs. Rather than urging lower-income women to get any job regardless of quality and creating programming based on this position, we urge program providers and individuals to concentrate on building career assets through education, training, and well-considered, targeted employment choices. Our recommendations suggest changes in career development tools and service provider practices to encourage career asset building.

From our research we know that to be successful, any career development tool must promote a career-asset building framework. We looked for a tool that would:

  • Provide planning assistance for building long-term career assets.
  • Encourage education and training as part of a career plan when possible.
  • Focus on ways to advance while working in addition to pursuing education.
  • Encourage users to explore careers and look for jobs strategically.
  • Access all available work supports for which a job seeker is eligible -such as childcare assistance, food stamps, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC), financial aid, and others. These supports provide the stability needed for good career decision-making.

A New Online Career Development Tool

While there are a number of career planning tools for women with a college education, we found virtually nothing that provided the necessary career planning components for women without post-secondary experience. When we could find no such tool or program, we created Career Coach. Career Coach is a free, online career development tool that offers an avenue for low-income, low-literacy adults to explore career options, define career goals, identify local education and training resources, and make a step-by-step plan to reach their goals. It is available in both English and Spanish.

Career Coach promotes an asset-building perspective for lower-income women, so that it:

  • Contains the message that low-income individuals without college degrees have been successful in entering a variety of fields and occupations.
  • Is simple to use, concise, and can be used in short increments.
  • Increases exposure to a variety of fields and occupations.
  • Includes specific steps to support incremental career planning.
  • Focuses career development on accumulating career assets. Career Coach does this by encouraging education and training when possible and helping users to develop a plan to obtain education and training.

To encourage career planning and strategic thinking among it's users, Career Coach features an assessment tool that suggests potential careers and contains career profiles featuring real people and real stories. To help service providers provide personalized career development, the Notebook feature of Career Coach saves work in an organized fashion so that service providers and clients can review saved work together. Finally, as a comprehensive career-planning framework for groups and individuals, Career Coach takes users through a comprehensive and practical step-by-step career development process. Users can follow the entire Career Coach planning process, or select a particular tool or resource.

Feedback and Evaluation

Sue Wasylik, Director of the Hospitality Academy at McCormick Place in Chicago, IL, has found Career Coach to be effective in her work. "Career Coach is easy to navigate, designed for varied skill levels and works well for both men and women. It contains practical exercises that help my participants think strategically about their job choices."

Michele Anderson, a job coach at Neighborhood Technology Resource Center, also in Chicago, concurs, "Career Coach makes my job easier. The career profiles are an especially effective way to learn about careers. The personal stories really speak to my clients."

We conducted an online survey of users in December 2005 and were pleased with the results. Of those who responded to our survey, 90 percent indicated that they learned something important from Career Coach. Eighty percent of respondents said they adjusted their career plans after using Career Coach, and 64 percent of respondents reported that Career Coach helped them choose a career goal. Furthermore, Career Coach is reaching the adults who need it most. Seventy-five percent of our survey respondents earn less than $35,000 per year and almost half earn less than $15,000 per year, although 45 percent of respondents work full-time.

In summary, service providers can adopt practices that help low-income individuals develop career assets. Career Coach helps them do this through a logical, step-by-step process. By implementing these strategies with the help of Career Coach, service providers can provide effective guidance to low-income individuals, especially women, so they can move out of the lowest-paying, lowest opportunity jobs and into satisfying careers.

Amy Johnson has been with the Women Employed Institute, a leading national advocate for women's economic advancement, since November 2004. She serves as Program Manager and manages Women Employed's Upgrade Your Future Mentoring Network, an online mentoring program for women interested in a career in IT. Under her direction, nearly seventy percent of women in the program chose a career goal and developed a plan to achieve their goal.

Amy also helps manage Career Coach, a free online career planning resource designed for low-skilled adults. With her help, Career Coach has reached nearly 100 organizations in the Chicago area, and received more than 100,000 visits in its first year after launch.

Prior to joining the Women Employed Institute, Amy held positions as Global Village Coordinator and Regional Administrator with Habitat for Humanity International for five years. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Hillsdale College and has a background in research and editing. She can be reached via email: ajohnson@womenemployed.org

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drew johnson   on Monday 12/01/2014 at 08:24 PM

What is the link to the career coach? It sounds intriguing.

Lynette W.   on Tuesday 12/02/2014 at 12:07 AM

Hi Drew,
I found Career Coach at http://womenemployed.org/career-coach.

Emily Brown   on Tuesday 12/02/2014 at 02:41 PM

Seriously misleading title. I expected a legitimate article discussing issues concerning 'lower income individuals' not a feminist sob story.

Larry Robbin   on Tuesday 12/09/2014 at 08:17 PM

This is an excellent post. I think a huge issue is exposing women to the idea that some of them can be successful in nontraditional blue collar skilled trades occupations. Only 3% of the hours in these high paid jobs such as electrician, plumber, iron worker etc. are done by women. Its not easy to pioneer and women need a lot of information to make this choice. A great resource to help them is the website www.prideandapaycheck.com. This site is by women in the trades and for women in the trades and those that want to explore these careers. Anyone can sign up for the free E magazine on the site.

Michelle Borst   on Wednesday 12/17/2014 at 12:46 PM

Good article, valid points but having worked within Michigan Works! for 14 years, these resources have been made available to no avail. The inherent behavior of the individual must change in order to find career success.

The findings from the research are not in dispute: most have career goals, they are familiar with careers of those around them, past jobs do not inspire careers, respondents work hard at finding jobs. But they also put the needs of their family above their career pursuit thus they have little time to follow thru with education that will lead to career employment.

The mind set of these last two items needs to be addressed if ANY career assessment/exploration tool is to be successful. They individual must come to the realization that obtaining career employment will benefit their family and they must develop a career plan that will incorporate a work-life balance and family cooperation/participation if the individual achieving that career goal.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in the comments shown above are those of the individual comment authors and do not reflect the views or opinions of this organization.