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Overview of finalists


The programs we reviewed are generally similar in structure: they enroll low-income people in training classes, then help them obtain employment, and in many cases follow up with them after placing them in jobs (both to see how they're doing and to track their outcomes). They differ, however, on:
  • Program intensity. Programs range from 1-2 weeks to 6 months followed by 6-month internships.
  • Population served. Some serve all comers, including those with extreme challenges; others use competitive application processes to pick out the most motivated people they can find; and others achieve self-selection by focusing on very specific career paths.
  • Types of jobs. Many programs place clients in low-paying ($8-12/hr jobs); others aim to place them in jobs paying up to $20/hr, with paths to higher earnings.
After reviewing the responses to our questions, outcomes data, and some independent research of our own, we recommend four programs (our recommendations here) that we believe have strong and successful approaches to helping people. Ranking these four is a judgment call; in doing so, we have prioritized the following types of programs:
  • Highly targeted. We believe that individual motivation is an extremely important factor in who is able to get work; by seeking out those most likely to benefit from help, programs can increase their success rates and lower their costs.
  • Offering concrete benefits such as certification. We are skeptical of even a 12-month program's ability to "fundamentally change" clients; providing concrete benefits such as certifications and referrals gives us more confidence.
  • Aiming to place clients in high-paying jobs. Our relatively cursory knowledge of NYC living standards makes us believe that an $8-12/hr job, with little opportunity for advancement, is not enough.
St. Nick's offers certification-centered programs for very specific and often high-paying jobs; Highbridge is similar in structure, though it offers less variety of (and fewer higher-paying) jobs; Year Up is a more intensive, expensive program, but aims to place carefully selected clients in quite high-paying jobs; The HOPE Program is an expensive program placing clients in low-wage jobs, but we're impressed by the results it has achieved with a highly challenged population.

The details

A few terms

  • Enrollees are those who enroll in a program.
  • Graduates are those who complete the program; the attrition rate between enrollees and graduates can be quite high.
  • Placements refers to graduates placed in jobs.
  • Retention refers to the length of time that a person placed in a job retained that job. (A "12-month retention rate" is the percentage of people placed in jobs who retained those same jobs as of 12 months later).
  • Sustainable placements refers to graduates who were not only placed in jobs, but who appeared to retain these jobs for a significant amount of time, based on followup reports from the charity in question. Unless otherwise specified, a "sustainable placement" refers to a person who was placed in a job that they retained for at least 12 months.

Overview of finalists

An easier to read, Excel version of this table can be found here.
Organization Clients served Client outcomes Total cost (per year) Number of clients served Number of clients placed sustainably Approximate cost per client placed sustainably Our confidence in these numbers Other programs
St. Nick's: ERT program
  • Low-income (
  • 9th grade level in reading and math
  • Interested in Environmental Remediation Technician job
  • Housing and substance abuse problems are rare
  • Environmental Remediation Technician certifications
  • All placements pay $10+/hr; many pay$20+/hr
$.5M 60 40 $12,000 Moderate Other Skills Training programs include Culinary Skills, Commercial Truck Driver, and plans for more; St. Nick's also offers many services for lower-paying jobs and more basic needs
Highbridge: Nurse Aide Training program
  • Low-income (5th grade reading level and soft qualifications such as communication skills and punctuality
  • Interested in Nurse Aide certification
  • Housing & substance abuse issues are rare
  • Nurse Aide certification
  • $10.50-$13/hr
  • Advancement likely requires further education
$.6M 140 60 $10,000 Moderate Pilot Phlebotomy training for higher-paying Nurse Aide jobs; a variety of programs targeting more basic needs
Year Up
  • Ages 18-24; low-income (
  • HS or GED degree
  • Competitive application process: ~20% of applicants accepted
  • We don't know about prevalence of housing and substance-abuse issues
  • Computer Support and Investment Operations
  • Average starting wages around $20/hr
  • Career path unclear to us
$8M 350 165 $50,000 Low N/A
The HOPE Program
  • Low-income (75% on public assistance)
  • Clients screened for willingness/ability to work; 80% of applicants accepted
  • Many clients with housing & substance-abuse issues
  • Low-skill jobs such as administrative assistant
  • About half of placements earn $8+/hr; 20% earn $12+/hr
  • Advancement likely requires further education
$1.75M 175 55 $32,000 High N/A
Vocational Foundation (VFI)
  • Ages 17-21; presumably low-income (25% on public assistance)
  • Competitive application process: ~33% of applicants accepted
  • We don't know about prevalence of housing and substance-abuse issues
  • Low-skill jobs such as administrative assistant
  • Wages average around $10/hr
  • Advancement likely requires further education
$3M 300 175 $17,000 High N/A
Covenant House: Skills Training programs
  • Ages 17-21; presumably low-income
  • All applicants accepted
  • ~50% are homeless (in Covenant House shelter)
  • Low-skill jobs such as administrative assistant
  • Advancement likely requires further education
Confidential 200 Confidential Confidential Low A variety of programs targeting more basic needs
Catholic Charities Community Services (CCCS): Job Training program
  • Very low-income (under federal poverty line)
  • All applicants accepted
  • 50-60% homeless; 20% with substance abuse issues
  • Low-skill jobs such as administrative assistant
  • Wages average around $10/hr
  • Advancement likely requires further education
$2.5M 1000 $85,000 Moderate A variety of programs targeting more basic needs
Our decisions are based on the following principles:

Focus on sustainable employment.

Graduating from a program is not the same as benefiting from it. As you can see on individual organizations' pages, placement rates and retention rates vary dramatically from organization to organization. Over 75% of the people placed by CCCS are no longer employed 6 months later; even lower-attrition programs such as The HOPE program still see around 25% attrition. In order to have any confidence in an organization, we need a sense not just of how many people it serves or how many people it places in jobs, but how many of the people it places stay employed for a significant period of time. We have generally used 12-month retention as our proxy for "sustainable employment," although this information is not available for CCCS (in the table above, we instead give the 6-month retention number). All of our finalists gave us at least a reasonable sense of how many sustainable placements they make, for at least one of their programs. None of our non-finalists did.

We believe that lower-paying jobs likely do not represent living wages.

As we discuss here, we believe that NYC adults are unlikely to be able to support themselves in the long term on the wages of the low-skill jobs listed above, which tend to be around $10/hr. We also don't see a clear path from these low-skill jobs to higher paying ones (see our coverage of The HOPE Program for more on this). Year Up stands out for its apparent ability to place people in relatively high-paying jobs. St. Nick's stands out as well for its ERT program, whose jobs are relatively high-paying; it also has plans to introduce more Skills Training programs, targeted at people with different needs and abilities, presumably with the aim of helping everyone to earn as much as they're capable of earning. Highbridge's Phlebotomy training program aims to put people in jobs paying around $18/hr, although Highbridge did not provide enough information on this particular program for us to have confidence in it.

Some clients are much more capable of being helped than others.

We are skeptical of the notion that any of these programs can "shape" an arbitrary person into a productive citizen. This notion is contradicted by what we've seen: note that most of the programs above place well under half of their clients in sustainable employment. Those that place clients at high rates, such as St. Nick's and the Vocational Foundation, are targeting their programs at particular populations and selecting out a lot of people to begin with; less selective programs place small proportions of their clients. None of these organizations are perfectly comparable to each other in terms of population served, and when we observe large differences in their placement rates, our first instinct is to attribute them to differences in the populations rather than differences in the programs. For example, when comparing HOPE and CCCS, we believe that HOPE benefits from the fact that its clients are interested in working, whereas CCCS's are referred by the government's public assistance program.

Not all clients need significant help.

We don't know this with confidence, but we suspect that a motivated enough person, even with low income and education, can find employment without help from a charity (or with very minimal help, rather than an extensive program). We would guess that this is particularly true for low-skill, low-wage jobs, such as those that VFI/CCCS/HOPE/Covenant clients are placed in. This is important because it underlies our belief that a sustainable job placement is not equivalent to a life changed. VFI makes a lot of placements for relatively little money, but it is also carefully selecting its applicants; as the VFI page explains, we believe many of these people may be able to get similar jobs with much less help than VFI provides, and we are not confident that VFI is impacting their lives above and beyond what they could do for themselves. This concern applies to all our applicants: without a "control group" of similar people who received fewer services, we can't be confident that any of these placements represent "program effects" rather than simply individual motivation. This is especially true because of our observation (noted above) of how much results vary from individual to individual.

We are skeptical of the idea that a program can deeply "change" its clients.

All of these programs target adults, whose skills and educations are likely rather established (we have no basis for this statement other than intuition); and none of these programs runs longer than 12 months. With this in mind, as well as the fact that differences in placement rates can so plausibly be explained by differences in populations (see the table above), we require a high burden of proof to convince us that high-cost, high-intensity programs are paying off by getting better results. We have an easy time seeing how a program can provide disadvantaged people with simple, basic things they need to get a job, such as certifications and referrals; we have a harder time seeing how it can change their willingness and ability to work in a permanent way. The HOPE Program, Year Up, and VFI are the most high-intensity programs we look at (the others provide relatively simple services or focus on specific certifications). The HOPE Program's results are so much stronger than CCCS's (which serves a somewhat, though not entirely, similar population) that we are moderately, though not strongly, inclined to credit it with "changing" its clients. Year Up's results are much stronger than what we would expect based on our analysis of census data, although our understanding of these results is very weak (we need more information on what its numbers mean). VFI's results are not much stronger than what we would expect based on our analysis of census data, although this comparison is problematic in many ways (for example, those who come to VFI presumably need more help than those in the general population), we are not convinced of a strong "VFI effect." See individual organizations' reviews for details.

We see certification-based programs as straightforward and cost-effective.

Helping someone obtain a certification seems intuitively like a way of providing concrete help, without attempting to fundamentally change the person. They stand in contrast to high-intensity programs (which spend large amounts of resources trying to do something we are not sure is possible) or extremely stripped-down job readiness programs (whose services are so basic and general that they require serving many clients in order to help a few). Dividing total costs by people placed sustainably, in the table above, yields a rough estimate of cost-effectiveness. This is not the same as "cost per life changed"; one program may get lots of placements by selecting clients who are strong to begin with, while another may get fewer placements but be changing more lives. But putting aside this possibility, which requires the belief that some organizations are deeply "changing" their clients, this metric is a rough proxy for how well organizations are focusing their resources on people who can benefit from them relatively easily. The fact that Highbridge and St. Nick's, the two certification-programs, come out "cheaper" than other programs gives some support to the above hypothesis.

We prefer to give where further funding is needed and can be productively used.

On one hand, we are against the practice of restricting grants; we see this as micromanagement, and believe that a good charity should know more about how to use its funds than we do. But when choosing between charities, we have tried to consider where our money is needed and can be productively used, a difficult endeavor when dealing with large and complex organizations. Year Up is the organization whose ability to scale is clearest to us. It already runs sites in Boston, Providence, D.C., and New York, and has been rapidly expanding over the last few years (see its individual page for details). We believe that more funding can translate into more people served by the same model (although our confidence is not high, since the only site with strong outcomes data is the original Boston site). St. Nick's recently piloted two new types of Skills Training programs - a Commercial Truck Driver program and a Culinary Skills program - and mentions the wish to pilot several more (see its individual page for details). The workforce development component of its budget has grown significantly over the past couple of years, and based on this, it seems likely to us that an influx of funding could mean more rapid development and broader reach for these programs. With other applicants, we have relatively little sense of what an influx of funds would mean, although we imagine that in most cases a large enough influx would cause them to at least attempt expanding and serving more people.

The bottom line

The Skills Training programs offered by St. Nick's provide a simple, straightforward benefit that is easy for us to understand and leads in many cases to a true living wage. We believe that more funding could help St. Nick's to develop more types of programs and help more people maximize their earnings. Highbridge has many of the same strengths as St. Nick's, along with an impressive commitment to self-evaluation and learning (see its individual page for analysis). We prefer St. Nick's for now because we have a better understanding of its high-end (i.e., targeting higher wages) program. Year Up places people in high-paying jobs; appears to be having an impact above and beyond what its clients could do on their own; and appears capable of scaling up with more funding. We are not confident in its numbers, and the program is extremely expensive compared to St. Nick's. The HOPE Program has extremely strong self-evaluation and -documentation (see its individual review), and there is some reason to believe it has having a significant impact above and beyond what its clients could do on their own. We recommend those four organizations, in that order.