UIC’s Center for Urban Economic Development partnered with the community-based North Lawndale Employment Network, applying the University’s academic expertise and resources to enable NLEN to better serve its clients.
Since August 2001, NLEN has offered employment-related services and programs to ex-offenders in North Lawndale and surrounding communities. Through its Resource Center, NLEN also helps any low-income North Lawndale resident seeking employment. As part of its program enrollment and registration process, NLEN routinely collects data on clients and typically uses it to monitor and track the progress of individual clients, assess their changing needs, and shape programs and services to meet the needs of prospective clients.
After CUED analyzed data collected by NLEN on more than 900 of its clients between 2001 and 2005, NLEN was able to assess client trends and demographics in areas such as age, gender, employment history, education levels, family composition, criminal backgrounds, and residence. Understanding these client trends and patterns helps to better assess the employment service needs of clients.
“We get a little clearer picture about what kind of people use the Resource Center,” Ron Tonn, the NLEN Chief Operating Officer explained. “And it helps when we’re approaching funders to be able to define our community in specific terms. For example, we found that we had more CHA residents in our client pool than really anyone here was aware of. So when it comes to constructing proposal applications, it’s very handy to say, ‘We serve this percentage of CHA residents and it’s a target population for the organization.’ It opens doors to different funding opportunities. It also gives us some insight that can help us tailor services for the specific circumstances of the clients here.”
He also explained how this more sophisticated analysis helped target their programs more effectively. “We know the average age of our clients, but seeing the scope of and the range of those ages from the very young, sometimes 17, 18 years old, up to those that are well along in their life path when they seek a service is a new way of looking at it for us. It challenges us to, rather than target a program for a 32-year-old former offender who would be the average, be mindful that we’re also addressing the 22-year-old and maybe the 52-year-old at the same time. So we need to incorporate that awareness into all our program designs.”
Tonn expects the data prepared by CUED to continue to be useful. “I know we’ll mine it for insights that we can use when we pursue funding opportunities. When we see an interesting demographic segment that we weren’t aware of before, it opens the door to all kinds of programming ideas and funding opportunities.”
Another area where university expertise could help NLEN is in evaluation. Tonn explained, “I think one of the things we’re really sorely in need of is some objective, external evaluation of program designs and program outcomes. I mean, we can sit here all day long and say our programs are wonderful and produce our own statistics, but they don’t have the same weight with the outside world, as if an external independent entity performed that same analysis. So I would love to be able to work with universities to do evaluations of program designs and get external verification of our outcomes.”
NLEN hopes to ultimately incorporate the data they collect into a state-of-the-art information system to guide their frontline decision-making. And the University welcomed the opportunity to apply research techniques to the complexities of a real situation, while also benefiting the community.