Strategies for Helping the Hard To Employ

By Larry Robbin

The “hard-to-employ” are individuals that have employment barriers and challenges to overcome, and some may also have a lack of interest in going to work. They are in the ranks of welfare recipients, people who are incarcerated or in reentry, at-risk youth, the long term unemployed, people on Supplemental Security Income or Social Security Disability, and other populations. While they have many assets and strengths, becoming employed is not one of them. There are strategies that workforce programs can use to improve their employment motivation.  

Role Modeling:

One of the most effective strategies is to make the workforce program role model and not information driven. Information about work is of little interest to the hard-to-employ. What does get their attention is learning about people who were once just like them, but are now working. They are curious about the lives of these individuals. Formerly hard-to-employ people from your program that are now working are your most powerful allies in helping to increase employment motivation in your current program participants. There are a variety ways to use the power of these role models.  

Your working program alumni that were once hard-to-employ can come back to the program to talk with your current participants. Working alumni that cannot come in could potentially call in on their lunch hour. You can also conduct video interviews with your working alumni. They can talk about the struggle to change their anti-work thinking and the benefits of going to work. Show these videos in your orientation, group and individual sessions. Engage people watching the videos in a dialog about the connections between the lives of the alumni and their lives.  

Hall of Fame:

Create a Hall of Fame in your entrance hallway and lobby with pictures of formerly hard-to-employ people that are now working. Put up brief biographies in the appropriate language below each picture. Take your program participants on a tour of this gallery and talk about what influenced these working heroes to reinvent their lives. Make sure you have signed releases of information before you discuss this information.

Put up a mini Hall of Fame of pictures in your cubicle of people you have helped and refer to these people as you conduct your employment counseling. This will give your clients proof that people just like them went to work and that it changed their lives for the better.  


With management approval, pair up your current program participants with working alumni that share similar history and demographics for informational interviews. One of the most powerful strategies is to develop a mentoring program that couples the former hard-to-employ with people that are currently in your program.  

Story Telling:

Instead of lecturing people about working, tell moving and powerful stories of people that were once hard-to-employ and their struggles to find their pathway to employment. This strategy will work for all your clients, but it will be especially powerful for people that come from cultures where information is passed on by storytelling instead of written documents.  

One common characteristic of this population is their low vocational self-efficacy. Vocational self-efficacy is a term I use to explain the cynicism people have that leads them to believe that no one would hire them and that they have no place in the world of work. This negative self-talk is one of the factors that contributes to their anti-work attitudes. It is very important to prove to them that people coming from similar circumstances that have done some work on their barriers to employment are in fact being hired.  


Design a ritual of celebration that occurs when people get job offers and takes place before they start work. The ritual should be festive, noisy, and celebratory and get across the message that people are being hired. In one program, they gather all the people that have job offers but have not started work in their lobby and ring bells, throw confetti, eat cake and sing songs.  People get a certificate signed by the Mayor, gift cards donated by local businesses and congratulation cards signed by staff. They talk about their journey to employment. They often invite family and friends. Hard-to-employ people are invited to participate in this important event. Seeing people like themselves get jobs can have a profound impact on raising their vocational self-efficacy, which can lead to increased employment motivation.

Overcoming Barriers
One reason the hard-to-employ have these attitudes is a lack of positive vocational role models in their lives. They live in communities with high levels of unemployment and they have been cut off from the labor market. They lack the social capital that many people use to get jobs. They also face other barriers to employment. Substance abuse, mental health issues, learning disabilities and a lack of good schools can all contribute to their situation. If workforce programs use the power of role models that have pioneered out of these circumstances as inspiring teachers and guides, a great deal of vocational progress will take place and the hard-to-employ can go to work!



Larry RobbinLarry Robbin, Executive Director of Robbin and Associates, has over forty-five years of diverse national experience in workforce development.  He has worked with over 1000 workforce organizations and trained more than 100,000 people.  Over sixty of his articles and interviews appear in workforce publications.  For more information about his work go to www.LarryRobbin.com. You can email him at larryrobbin@aol.com

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Paula Brand   on Wednesday 06/17/2015 at 12:51 PM

Larry, thanks for sharing this article. I agree that these are very useful methods. I have seen them work before when I have helped people in the "hard to employ" category.

Donna Watson   on Thursday 07/07/2016 at 10:42 AM

These are excellent ideas! Some agencies have certain restrictions. However; there is an idea on this list that every agency can use.

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.