Employer Engagement: Lessons for Employment Programs from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Publication Date: October 28, 2021
Cover of Employer Engagement: Lessons for Employment Programs from the COVID-19 Pandemic

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  • Published: 2021


This brief describes the experiences of six employment programs participating in the Next Generation of Enhanced Employment Strategies (NextGen) Project and presents key takeaways from their efforts to maintain and develop new connections with employers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Four of the programs serve people with mental illness, one serves Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) participants with disabilities or who care for dependents with disabilities, and one serves young adults with disabilities who are transitioning from school to work. The brief should be of interest to practitioners who work with people who experience challenges to finding a job or advancing in their careers, as well as employers and policymakers. 


The purpose of this brief is to offer lessons for other employment programs about promising strategies for working with employers that might endure beyond the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key Findings and Highlights

To develop and maintain relationships with employers, programs had to be more strategic and devise more creative ways of connecting during the pandemic. They needed especially to be attuned to the needs and preferences of the employers. The key takeaways from their efforts are described below.

  • Programs found remote communication with employers to be more valuable than they had anticipated in two ways:
    • Employers were willing to spend more time communicating remotely than in person.
    • Programs were able to expand their networks to employers that they were unable to reach in person.
  • When the pandemic ends, several programs envision using technology to make the initial connection with a new employer, then building trust through an in-person meeting, and then continuing communication via the employer’s preferred mode.
  • To compensate for the lack of face-to-face communication during the pandemic, programs placed a stronger emphasis on identifying and responding directly to employers’ needs.
  • Some programs relied on existing relationships with employers to develop relationships with new employers. They found value in personal introductions and in the opportunity to expand their employer networks.


This brief is based on information shared during regular telephone communications between the NextGen Project team and program leaders to guide the design and implementation of the NextGen Project, as well as reports program administrators use to track participant outcomes. Programs reported about their experiences between March 2020 when the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic and March 2021.


  • Employers might be more responsive to remote rather than in-person outreach.
  • Developing relationships with new employers might be easier in person, but initial and ongoing connections can be made virtually.
  • A stronger customer service approach that focuses on employers’ needs can expand opportunities for program participants. Programs can better understand employers’ perspectives by:
    • Asking rather than assuming what employers need.
    • Including employers on program steering committees or advisory boards.
    • Taking advantage of interactions with employers outside of formal job development activities.
  • Programs can expand their networks by leveraging employers’ networks.


Kauff, Jacqueline (2021). Employer Engagement: Lessons Learned for Employment Programs from the COVID-19 Pandemic. OPRE Report #2021-135.  Washington, DC: Office of Planning, Research, and Evaluation, Administration for Children and Families, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.