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Do job training programs work? Wrong question

A policy expert argues that we’ll make more progress if we direct our focus on what we can do to make it work

Do job training programs work? Wrong question
[Photo: Max Pixel]

This story reflects the views of this author, but not necessarily the editorial position of Fast Company.

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I’ve been studying job training programs for decades–ranging from efforts led by community groups to those housed within community colleges–all designed to equip people who don’t have formal degrees with marketable skills to thrive in the modern workplace. In the process, I’ve conducted interviews and focus groups with hundreds of workers and job seekers in a wide range of industries. I’ve talked to single women leaving welfare, formerly incarcerated individuals, laid-off coal miners, and out-of-school youth. They all want the same thing–to build skills and work for a living.

One question that I get asked all the time is whether these efforts are actually working. It’s the wrong question for many reasons, not least because “job training” can mean so many different things. What we really should be asking is how we can make it successful. Here are a few things we can do.

Think more holistically about funding

I’ve seen small programs propel people to higher-paying positions, but scarce public and private investment make these efforts difficult.

The BEST Hospitality Training initiative in Boston has trained a couple of hundred people over the past five years for jobs in hospitality, many of whom earn substantially higher wages as well as employment benefits. The program now faces growing demand from companies for its graduates but may struggle to garner additional funds from the government agencies and philanthropic partners that already support it–largely because those entities don’t have more resources to give.

While politicians across the political spectrum continue to support various forms of job training, both Democratic and Republican administrations have decreased federal spending on those kinds of initiatives over the last four decades. According to a report by worker rights group National Skills Coalition, since 2001 the government has cut funds for workforce training programs by 40%.

Part of the funding problem is that available resources tend to cover only the direct operating costs of a training program, and nothing more. Instead, we also have to be willing to support the participants of job-training initiatives, who have real costs to bear outside of the training coursework itself. Learning takes people away from existing work, even if their jobs are low-paid. They often still have rent to pay and family members to take care of. Successful job training programs need to factor these costs into their funding projections, or at least offer adequate resources to connect participants with other organizations that can help with childcare, housing, transportation, food, and other basics. These are not costs that we can simply assume participants will be able to cover themselves.

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Related: This job-training program wants to add diversity to Silicon Valley–on the business side


Consider the larger purpose

We also need to ask whether job training alone is actually going to tackle the problem we want it to address, like poverty or unemployment. Frequently, the questions lawmakers and policy experts ask about any given training program’s efficacy are limited to whether it gets people back to work or reduces reliance on public assistance. Those factors certainly matter, but a short-term dip in unemployment might not indicate a substantive change in the labor market that lastingly creates more high-earning opportunities and fewer poverty-wage jobs.

In too many instances, training programs train a large group of people for jobs with very few vacancies. For example, one community college I’ve studied was recently preparing to graduate 400 nurses. Yet the major hospital system in that community (which is the college’s primary partner) intended to hire only 40 of them. I’ve seen other programs designed to prepare people to become childcare workers or home health aides, and while those jobs are important and require more skill than is commonly understood, they tend to pay wages that aren’t high enough to significantly change workers’ financial fortunes for the long-term.

Yet we know it’s possible to create training programs with labor realities in mind. Take Capital IDEA, a Texas nonprofit that works with employers and community colleges to identify where the skills shortages are located, then trains non-traditional students to fulfill those requirements. Not only does the average graduate from the program triples their earnings, but they’re meeting a labor need that actually exists where they live.


Related: These programs help low-income workers climb the career ladder


Acknowledge job training’s limits

While job-training programs can help individuals earn higher wage jobs than they might find on their own, many such efforts aren’t designed to make a significant change in how companies hire. Many initiatives might impact who gets a job yet fail to restructure the labor market to help more working people support themselves. After decades of declining pay and benefits for most workers, 1 in 4 working U.S. adults now earn wages that leave them and their families hovering near or beneath the poverty line. Training programs, no matter how well-designed, won’t automatically change that.

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The fact is that there is no single, simple solution to the challenge of widening economic opportunity for all. And rather than designing job-training programs in isolation, we need to develop them alongside other important decisions like technical assistance strategies, labor market regulations, tax incentives, business leadership, and access to credit and business financing strategies. I know it’s possible to do that, but our first step will be to kick the habit of posing the same reductive question about every job-training program that comes on the market: “Well, does it work, or doesn’t it?”


Maureen Conway is the vice president of policy programs and the executive director of the Economic Opportunities Program at The Aspen Institute.

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