Learning from Practice: WorkBC – Working with the Employment Program of BC

One year ago today, on April 2, 2012, the route to finding a job in British Columbia changed dramatically.

A range of provincial and federal employment programs intended to serve job seekers was replaced with an integrated approach designed to provide consistent services across all communities in the province. This new program,  the Employment Program of BC (EPBC), provides comprehensive employment services and supports to unemployed British Columbians regardless of whether they are receiving EI benefits, attempting to move from income assistance to paid employment, lacking work experience or language skills, or are facing employment barriers such as physical, emotional, health or cultural challenges. The model represents a “one-stop” comprehensive approach to serving all unemployed British Columbians looking for work.

Main Resource Room - Open Door Group

Main Resource Room – Open Door Group

Alona Puehse

Alona Puehse

The EPBC comes under the purview of the Ministry of Social Development with the recognition that some job seekers may need more support than others and that from a programmatic point of view, shared expertise can have advantages over service silos.  Previously, employment-based services were provided by a broad range of agencies that catered to specific groups such as general job seekers, persons with disabilities, immigrants and youth. Since EPBC launched, job seekers, regardless of their unique needs, can access services through the one umbrella—EPBC—delivered in 85 WorkBC Employment Service Centres (ESCs) across the province.

Lead contractors, of which there are 47 in the province, are responsible for operating the ESCs and for sub-contracting and coordinating partner agencies that collectively deliver the required services. Job seekers can work with a case manager within their own community and, together, develop a plan by assessing their needs to gain labour market or community attachment – as quickly as possible. With any new system involving a new way of doing things, implementation challenges can be expected and this has been the case with the new Employment Program of BC. Implementing EPBC has been a massive undertaking for many contractors across the province—a steep learning curve at both programmatic and administrative levels.

Stephanie Warren

Stephanie Warren

With the program approaching its one-year mark, it seemed timely to check in and see how things were going. As a non-profit organization responsible for five service catchment areas located in both urban and rural areas of the province, Open Door Group seemed a likely organization to speak to how they have been handling the challenges and what’s working for them in this new approach.

Alona Puehse, Director of Public Relations and Corporate Development, and Stephanie Warren, Program Director for the Vancouver Coastal Region, spoke with us at their Vancouver head office, located in the city’s downtown eastside.

This office, also the location of the Downtown Eastside Employment Services Centre, serves job seekers living in the local community.

Serving a Diverse Population of Job Seekers under One Roof

There is logic behind a model that aims to provide consistent and comprehensive access to employment services for diverse job seekers in all communities of BC, but the question asked of Open Door Group is: “How did you make it happen?”

Some job seekers may require limited support such as independent access to computers, job lists, or resume writing, while others may require more intensive supports and services, like workshops, one-to-one case management and/or financial supports to attend training to improve employment readiness.

Some job seekers, such as the following, may require specialized services and individualized support:

  • Aboriginal peoples
  • Persons with Disabilities
  • Persons with multiple barriers
  • Youth
  • Francophone
  • Immigrants
  • Rural and remote populations, and
  • Survivors of violence and abuse.

Open Door Group’s Vancouver ESC faces a particular challenge in that this location serves Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a diverse community that is also home to a disproportionate number of individuals with low levels of employment readiness, identified in the new EPBC model as tier three and four job seekers. Tier one job seekers are considered employment ready; that is, they can search independently with few supports, while Tier two individuals may need some interventions. While other areas of the province can expect that no more than 10 to 15 percent of their clients will be tier three or four, roughly 65 percent of the clients accessing the Downtown Eastside ESC require significant support to become employed.

Open Door Group has been delivering employment programs for over 37 years. Formerly THEOBC, their original focus was clients with multiple barriers, particularly Persons with Disabilities and people living with a mental health condition or illness. Over the years THEO’s mandate expanded to include mainstream job seekers and people on Income Assistance, including those with active addictions. In 2009, the vision shifted to include community inclusion, a shift reflected in their new name, Open Door Group.WelcomeWords1-crop

In order to ensure that they are able to meet the needs of clients in the Downtown Eastside, Open Door Group established partnerships with 13 other agencies, as well as reaching out to other agencies and organizations in the local community to share expertise and support. In addition, they have been holding in-house cross-training so that their staff can make appropriate referrals. The fact that there is staff from various organizations working under a single roof also provides an advantage in terms of sharing information, learning from each other and collaborating at a program level.

New Working Relationships

Each lead contractor is required to partner with other agencies in their catchment area. Open Door Group’s network of sub-contracted agencies includes organizations that can offer skills and experience working with specialized groups. Examples include organizations that have long histories serving immigrant groups, aboriginal people, at-risk youth, and survivors of violence. Although Open Door Group has a long history of serving persons with disabilities, the partnership also includes a “Disability Services Network” consisting of the Western Institute for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing, ALDA (Adult Learning Development Association), Neil Squire Society, and Gastown Vocational Services.

Having a network that includes 13 sub-contracted agencies brings the advantage of having a wide range of expertise on which to draw; however it also comes with challenges. To begin with, there is the challenge of managing a large number of sub-contractors, all with their own mission statements.

According to Alona Puehse, Open Door Group has extensive experience managing sub-contractors in previous contracts. This experience has resulted in having important organizational and contract management infrastructure in place—things like management information systems, finance, human relations, and quality assurance. They have also set up a governance structure composed of oversight committees plus a broader group representing each of the 13 partner agencies which meets to discuss issues like performance reporting, staffing and training issues and service delivery for specialized populations. They feel that having this structure, which provides communication opportunities, has reduced the potential for conflict.

The challenge of providing good governance and open communication is complicated by the fact that current partner agencies could, within a few years, become competitors. While you want to ensure your agencies have the resources they need to do the best job they can, how much proprietary information can be shared? Open Door Group made the decision to share information–to be transparent, and they feel they made the correct decision.

We've been lucky. We've chosen great partners and there haven’t been any issues that we haven't been able to resolve at the governance level. And just being really transparent is the key in hearing those different issues. (Stephanie Warren)

We’ve been lucky. We’ve chosen great partners and so far there haven’t been any issues that we haven’t been able to resolve at the governance level. Being transparent has been the key in hearing those different issues. (Stephanie Warren)

More importantly, Open Door Group also apportioned a large percentage (over 50%) of contract dollars to flow through to their partner agencies, in recognition of providing services that match the diverse needs of job seekers in the Downtown Eastside. They have also made a concerted effort to work with non-contracted social agencies in the community in ways that are mutually beneficial such as providing job placement services for agencies doing pre-employment work, or being able to use local enterprises for work experience placements before helping the job seeker find paid employment.

Furthermore, because it can be confusing for the person coming through the door to sort out the various agencies, and to reinforce that all staff are working toward one end, everyone working at the Employment Service Centre wears a WorkBC name tag rather than wearing name tags associating staff with particular agencies.

Engaging the Community

Open Door Group sees community engagement as key and staff have not only been seeking and creating new partnerships with the many organizations pre-existing in the DTES, but have also reached out to clients who may otherwise avoid the Centre.

One of the things we’re doing is we’re working with the Downtown Community Courts to provide employment services to persons who are on probation. Many of these clients are chronic offenders and struggle with mental illness, drug addiction, or both. Because this client group can be difficult to engage,  we’re providing outreach services for them right there, onsite at the community Court, so that the probation officer can walk their client directly to us and to introduce the client to the vocational counselor personally, which assists the client in getting connected. (Stephanie Warren)

At the same time, they know there is a fine line here because the idea of the ESC is to draw clients through the door rather than have a system of decentralized specialized locations.

They are also proactively reaching out to employers, finding ways to help them become more aware of ways they might benefit from the services offered through the WorkBC Centres, as well as ways to use the Centres themselves.

There is the recruitment and the pre-screening and all of that but also (inviting them to) come in, use our space for an information session, or for a hiring fair. They can do one-to-one interviews here. We can have employer meet and greets. Also make them more aware of ways they can help develop skills for job seekers like the wage subsidies, the work experience placements, customized employment. (Alona Puehse)

Open Door Group’s Kamloops office is already running what they call the “Employer Speaker Series” where local employers are invited to come and speak about their company to job seekers.

It’s a way to bring employers here so they’re aware of the Centre and the services and it connects them face-to-face with job seekers. So the job seekers also feel they are getting to connect with employers, not just doing a resume or something.

The Integrated Case Management (ICM) System

Job Developer
Job Developer

As with any new system, learning to use the new Integrated Case Management data management system has taken time to learn and was initially challenging for employment service providers with the Employment Program of BC. This has also been the case for staff at the Downtown Eastside ESC. However, based on feedback from all service providers, the Ministry has made a number of system improvements to make the ICM system more user-friendly. The Ministry has also provided additional funding to support contractors to address the administrative demands posed by the ICM.

And, while there have been challenges, Alona and Stephaine look forward to experiencing future benefits. They know that the data being entered now will mean enhanced ability to do things like develop outreach strategies, track client referrals, and improve services to clients.

EPBC – Emerging Benefits

In the meantime, according to Alona and Stephanie, they are beginning to experience benefits in things like improved service delivery, and in efficiencies in terms of marketing and training.

Improved Service Delivery

Case Manager

Case Manager

Having so many specialized services under one roof, working together in a collaborative fashion, combined with Open Door Group’s pre-existing experience working with diverse client groups, has resulted in huge benefits in terms of service delivery.  They feel the new system gives them the flexibility and resources to be creative in entirely new ways. For example, Stephanie says, because their staff can provide services in eight languages as well as providing disability support, they are now planning a process to support a cohort of Cantonese and Mandarin speakers as they move through a staged employment readiness program. And, should there be job seekers in this same group who have a disability, that client can be served within this same program.

Before you had to choose—do they go to the disability service provider, or do they go to the immigrant services provider? And now the client can benefit from having the support of both specialized providers working closely together … for instance we can provide disability management services and deliver it in their first language, where needed, which is great. Something we couldn’t do before. (Stephanie Warren)

Alona says the new flexibility is in direct contrast to a popular misconception around the tagline, “One Stop Shop,” which suggests that “one size fits all” and this, of course, is not the case. In fact, she says, “It’s a menu of services that can be tailored to the actual need of the individual.”


Efficiencies Gained in Marketing and Training

A benefit has been being able to capitalize on the fact that so many different providers are all essentially delivering the same program—sharing a common goal.

One of the challenges we faced before was having all these individual organizations with our own identities, and one of the Ministry requirements was strict guidelines around WorkBC, the branding and messaging, etc. But in a way it actually made it easier and took away some of the competitiveness as well.

As an example, counting Open Door Group, there are five contract holders in Vancouver. Alona says if something comes up, like a big job fair at the Convention Centre, these five contractors can share responsibility for representing WorkBC at the event. “And it’s not competitive because it’s the same program.”  Similarly, the contractors are also beginning to collaborate on other kinds of activities such as developing marketing materials like brochures, advertising, and newspaper messaging. And, as Alona says, “the benefit of that is you’re getting a consistent message to clients and employers, and there are cost savings because we order everything in bulk.” She adds that these efficiencies can also apply to things like IT and HR systems.

And finally, according to Stephanie, having a standardized approach has resulted in training efficiencies as well.

We’re developing a training curriculum with all of the Vancouver contractors so that we can offer training for staff every other month but each contractor would only have to do it two times per year. So that’s a really unique benefit that we could never do before.

Stephanie and Alona told us that if we’d come to see them six months earlier they might not have sounded as positive—they were in the crux of change, hadn’t discovered solutions, and benefits hadn’t yet emerged. “It’s such a complex model it takes a long time to really wrap your mind around it. Sometimes you have to try different things before you find the ones that work.”  They say things are now “really starting to come together.”

ODG Sign+url

For more information on WorkBC Employment Service Centres, visit the WorkBC website.

To learn about lessons from the one-stop employment services model in other jurisdictions, check out our Knowledge Clearinghouse resource on this topic.

For more information and statistics on EPBC’s first year of operations, see the Ministry of Social Development’s press release.

We know other WorkBC Centres are also trying different things and finding solutions to improve services. The Centre invites you to share what you are doing that is making a difference to practice and services. Join the conversation!