New Start Career Network Helped Over Six Thousand Long-term Unemployed New Jerseyans Find Help and Hope

July 19, 2022

Heldrich Center’s innovative strategy delivers strong results, demonstrates the value of volunteer career coaches

In a final report detailing the impact of the New Start Career Network (NSCN), a six-year partnership to provide thousands of long-term unemployed New Jerseyans with free one-on-one and group coaching and a range of services to rebuild shattered careers and lost confidence, the Heldrich Center shows the innovative, privately funded program delivered numerous positive outcomes. The Heldrich Center reports that long-term unemployed members were very satisfied with the program, with 9 in 10 saying they would recommend NSCN to a friend according to surveys of members:*

  • Most members agree that NSCN improved their job search strategies, interview skills, networking, résumés, and social media skills. They also reported improvements in their motivation, confidence, and employment. Nearly 4 in 10 (38%) of the survey respondents said they had obtained a new job.
  • More than 8 in 10 older, long-term unemployed respondents say that NSCN provided essential emotional support, helping them understand they were not alone.
  • A majority of volunteer career coaches report that addressing job seekers’ self-esteem and helping rebuild their confidence were among the most valuable services for NSCN members.

The Philip and Tammy Murphy Family Foundation provided foundational support for the initiative. The Heldrich Center also obtained funding to match the Murphy Family Foundation’s contribution from New Jersey Resources, the Fund for New Jersey, the Corporation for National and Community Service/New Jersey Volunteer Generation Fund, Amazon, and other New Jersey based companies.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy said of NSCN: “What we did here with the New Start Career Network represents the best of New Jersey and is a model for the nation. We have the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers, our state university, devoting its expertise and its resources. We have business, government, nonprofits, individual volunteers, and other organizations coming together to solve a problem that affects the livelihood of so many. This is how we make progress as a state, and I am honored to have been a part of this effort. We are incorporating the lessons from NSCN into our ongoing efforts to build a stronger and fairer New Jersey for all our residents.”

The Next Recession is Never Far Away

NSCN was a response to high rates of long-term unemployment following the Great Recession, according to the report. Its lessons remain relevant today as the nation recovers from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which left 1.4 million workers long-term unemployed. NSCN provides insights to policymakers and funders considering strategies to enhance public workforce system services for older and dislocated workers.

The Heldrich Center and other researchers have documented the devastating impacts of long-term unemployment on individuals, families, and communities. Long-term unemployment leads to a wide range of adverse mental and physical health effects, including stress, depression, and higher suicide rates.

Carl Van Horn, founding director of the Heldrich Center and Distinguished Professor at the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, observed, “Older Americans are more likely to find themselves among the long-term unemployed than younger workers, and there are very limited remedies in this country to help them. Unemployment benefits run out for those who qualified in the first place, and funding for retraining and job search assistance is scant.”

Volunteer Career Coach Program was Significant Innovation

NSCN’s innovative use of volunteer career coaches played a critical, cost-effective role in helping job seekers regain confidence and find jobs. NSCN’s volunteers helped members navigate the emotional challenges of job search, listened nonjudgmentally to their concerns, and encouraged job seekers on the tough days.

Volunteer career coaches found their counseling relationships productive. “I think that job seekers benefit most from the support, encouragement, and accountability that career coaches provide — assistance that cannot be obtained through webinars and other tools,” one coach said. Another remarked, “Most individuals I coach feel defeated, undervalued, and angry about being let go. It's important for me, as the coach, to address those issues first and foremost.”

In 2018, in recognition of their extraordinary efforts to help older, long-term unemployed New Jerseyans, the NSCN volunteer career coaches were honored with a New Jersey State Governor’s Jefferson Award. The Jefferson Awards, established in 1972 as the official recognition program of the U.S. Senate, are considered America’s highest honor for public service and volunteerism.

Reducing Stress and Building Confidence

The report notes that it is essential “to assess the program’s impact on people’s confidence and self-esteem, which are as critical to their job search and overall well-being."

Surveys of NSCN job seekers found that the members appreciated understanding that they were not alone and that the program improved their mental health. Over two-thirds of NSCN members said that the program improved their motivation and confidence. Stress can impair individuals’ executive functioning, including planning, setting, and achieving goals. NSCN reduced members’ stress and improved their emotional well-being, often leading to better outcomes.

Michele Martin, NSCN’s second director, noted, “For many New Start members, access to the volunteer coaches was a much-needed lifeline during a challenging time in their lives. Having someone they perceived as ‘in their corner,’ listening to their concerns and validating the difficulty of the search helped members persist in their efforts. When the search seemed overwhelming, coaches helped members break things down into more manageable tasks and provided the ongoing encouragement, structure, and accountability that job seekers needed.”

Looking Forward

Based on the experience designing and implementing NSCN, the Heldrich Center found that older, long-term unemployed job seekers need more, and different, services than typically available through the public workforce system. These include:

  • Emotional and mental health support;
  • Coaching to help with motivation and execution of a job search;
  • Unbiased and realistic information about education, training, and specific job prospects; and
  • Opportunities to connect to and provide peer support to one another.

The report finds that persuading employers to overcome biases against older workers was difficult and recommends that older workers should be considered for apprenticeships and sector-focused employment and training programs so that employers can assess older workers on the job, rather than just on a résumé.

“We learned from NSCN that many of our members face opportunity gaps rather than skills or training gaps. Helping them requires concerted efforts to partner with employers, convincing them to include older workers in their diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives and to rethink hiring practices that exclude many talented individuals just because they have a résumé gap or are in their 40s, 50s, or 60s,” said NSCN founding director, Maria Heidkamp.

A Model for Other Agencies, Foundations, and Universities

“I have been involved in multiple efforts to help job seekers over the years, notably following the events of 9/11 and now thousands of older, long-term unemployed individuals through the New Start Career Network,” said Kathy Krepcio, Executive Director of the Heldrich Center. “These experiences have reinforced for me the need to keep working to strengthen the offerings of our country’s under-resourced public workforce system, which does not go far enough to help workers cope with dislocation and make successful transitions.”

“Academic institutions, foundations, and other public-private partnerships with a mission to help long-term unemployed job seekers might consider adapting successful practices from NCSN into their own approaches,” added Heidkamp.

Among the program design principles featured in the report are:

  • Offer all services free-of-charge.
  • Serve as a guide for job seekers and help them select a set of the “best” or most promising resources.
  • Encourage active engagement of job seekers rather than only providing passive lists of resources, with an emphasis on networking and peer support.
  • Refer to job seekers as “members” of the network rather than clients or program participants.
  • Establish an almost-entirely virtual program, integrating a “high tech/high engagement” approach that would offer access to both digital services as well as personalized career coaching provided by trained, volunteer career coaches for members who wanted the help.  
  • Customize options based on individuals’ needs. No services would be required for members, who would be free to engage as much or as often as they wanted. 
  • Make services available to all job seekers who met basic criteria: age 45+, long-term unemployed or underemployed, and a New Jersey resident. The program was not a “boot camp” model available to small cohorts, nor was it limited to only job seekers likely to have good outcomes or limited to white-collar workers and/or college graduates.  

* Conducted in 2018 (N=662) and 2021 (N=272).