Panel Paper: Applying Scientific Evidence on Executive Skills in the Mygoals Workforce Coaching Program

Friday, November 9, 2018
Johnson - Mezz Level (Marriott Wardman Park)

*Names in bold indicate Presenter

Nina Castells, MDRC

Lifting oneself out of poverty in today’s increasingly knowledge-based labor market requires addressing issues across multiple fronts, not only in navigating the labor market, but also in acquiring education and training credentials, adopting good financial practices and building assets, and tackling family challenges and relationships that may affect getting a job, staying employed, and moving up. Setting and achieving goals across these areas draws heavily on a person’s “executive skills.” Such skills involve the ability to plan, organize, stay focused, control one’s emotions, and follow through on tasks. Yet, lessons from recent behavioral science research and neuroscience show that the stresses of coping with poverty consumes cognitive “bandwidth,” can weaken a person’s application of executive skills, and can undermine a focus on efforts to get ahead.

MyGoals for Employment Success is an innovative workforce intervention designed by MDRC that aims to apply lessons from research on executive skills in helping participants set and achieve economic mobility goals. MyGoals combines a highly structured coaching model with a set of financial incentives to support participants in making step-by-step progress toward better labor market outcomes over a three-year period. The model draws on research evidence on behavioral interventions (including motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral rehearsals), and on evidence on the success of financial incentives in supporting progress in reaching employment goals.

MDRC launched MyGoals in two public housing agencies in Houston and Baltimore in early 2017. The program is targeted toward nonworking adults who receive Section 8 housing choice vouchers or live in public housing. The demonstration is funded by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and other private foundations. MDRC and Mathematica Policy Research are evaluating the program’s effectiveness using a random assignment study design. This paper will describe the early efforts to build the capacity of programs’ coaches to apply the core principles of this executive-skills-informed workforce coaching approach. It will also describe the population of subsidized tenants who have enrolled in the study to date and the program group’s early patterns of engagement. (The sample, which numbers over 900 so far, will eventually include a total of 1,750 people across both cities, with half assigned to the program group.) Through MDRC’s technical assistance efforts, the research team has learned a great deal from coaches’ early experiences in implementing a coaching model that stands in sharp contrast to the traditional case management model. MyGoals coaches, many of whom had previous experience as case managers in various contexts, have had to “unlearn” many aspects of their prior case management styles and practices and transform how they engage with participants to effectively apply the MyGoals coaching principles. The paper will discuss challenges coaches faced in adapting some aspects of the model, as well as coaches’ impressions of the advantages of the new approaches in benefiting participants as they work toward their goals.