Usefulness of training programs questioned as millions seek work
NEW YORK — In what was beginning to feel like a previous life, Israel Valle had earned $18 an hour as an executive assistant to a designer at a prominent fashion label. Now, he was jobless and struggling to find work. Updating his skills seemed like the ticket.
It was February 2009, and the city work force center in Brooklyn was jammed with hundreds of people hungry for paychecks. His caseworker urged him to take advantage of classes financed by the federal government, which had increased money for job training. Upgrade your skills, she counseled. Then she could arrange job interviews.
For six weeks, Valle, 49, absorbed instruction in spreadsheets and word processing. He tinkered with his résumé. But the interviews his caseworker eventually arranged were for low-wage jobs, and they were mobbed by desperate applicants. More than a year later, Valle remains among the record 6.8 million Americans who have been officially jobless for six months or longer. He recently applied for welfare.
“Training was fruitless,” he said. “I’m not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one’s hiring.”
Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.
Even before the recession created the bleakest job market in more than a quartercentury, job training was producing disappointing results. A study for the Labor Department tracking the experience of 160,000 laid-off workers in 12 states between the middle of 2003 and 2005 — a time of economic expansion — found that those who went through training wound up earning little more than those who did not, even three and four years later. “Overall, it appears possible that ultimate gains from participation are small or nonexistent,” the study concluded.
In the past 18 months, the Obama administration has embraced more promising approaches to training focused on faster-growing areas like renewable energy and health care. But most money has been directed at the same sorts of programs that in past years have largely failed to steer unemployed workers toward new careers, say experts, and now the number of job openings is dwarfed by the number of people out of work.
Some accuse the administration of leaning on training to convey false reassurance that a fix is under way while declining to create jobs en masse via public spending.
“It’s such an ugly situation that job training can’t solve it,” said Ross Eisenbrey, a job training expert at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research institution in Washington, and a former commissioner of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission. “When you have five people (unemployed) for every vacancy, you can train all the people you want, and unfortunately only one-fifth of the people will get hired. Training doesn’t create jobs.”
Labor economists and work force development experts say the frustration that frequently results from job training reflects the dubious quality of many programs. Most last only a few months, providing general skills without conferring useful credentials in specialized fields. Programs rarely involve employers and are typically too modest to enable cast-off workers to begin new careers.
Nationally, most job training is financed through the federal Workforce Investment Act, which was written in 1998 — when hiring was extraordinarily robust.
Carl E. Van Horn, a labor economist and director of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University, said: “You take a policy that was designed for the best economy that we had since World War II, and you lay it up against the economy that is the worst since World War II. It can’t work.”