Use­ful­ness of train­ing pro­grams ques­tioned as mil­lions seek work

Austin American-Statesman - - WORLD & NATION - By Peter S. Good­man

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.”

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