Job training fails without jobs

President Obama touts job retraining at community colleges to enable laid-off workers to close the “skills gap.” Mitt Romney agrees that job retraining is the answer.  But job training may not help — in fact, it may hurt — if there are few jobs in the local economy, writes Amy Goldstein for Pro Publica.

When the GM factory closed in Janesville, Wisconsin,  Blackhawk Technical College stepped up to the challenge.

 . . .  instead of preparing some students to go on to universities, (Blackhawk) offers only vocational programs, teaching its students to be welders, IT specialists, and medical lab technicians, and to go into advanced manufacturing – precisely the skills that Obama has been touting for retraining programs. As the president and others urge two-year colleges to become partners with local businesses, to try to navigate laid-off workers into fields in which jobs are most likely to exist, Blackhawk already has been doing that for years.

. . . Trying to allay the anxiety of workers coming back to school, the college held a community picnic for families with games for the children and a chance for the adults to talk with deans and instructors over hamburgers and hot dogs. It added 88 class sections, hired extra instructors, borrowed financial aid officers from other schools and, when it ran out of classrooms, added Saturday sessions.

About one-third of workers who lost jobs in the recession have pursued some form of retraining—at two-year colleges and elsewhere— Goldstein estimates. But research on job retraining’s effectiveness is “thin and mixed.” A large federal study found displaced workers who trained under the Workforce Investment Act took years to catch up with similar people who hadn’t gone back to school.

In Janesville, the laid-off workers who took job training classes at Blackhawk are working less and earning less than their laid-off co-workers who didn’t go back to school.

Those who didn’t retrain saw their pay fall by 8 percent. Retrained workers who found jobs lost 36 percent of their former paychecks.

One possibility is that the laid-off people best able to get another job did, while those who were less desirable to employers went to Blackhawk. Or it could be that the advantages from retraining are just slow to materialize . . .

Another possibility is that people who didn’t invest a year or two in education snapped up jobs that were gone by the time those who went to Blackhawk began searching for work.

“If you don’t have enough jobs….you cannot train your way to victory,” Laura Dresser, a University of Wisconsin labor economist told Goldstein.

Only a third of dislocated workers who enrolled at Blackhawk managed to graduate, but graduates were no more likely to be working than drop-outs.  (Some people dropped out to take a job offer.)

Blackhawk used a $2 million federal grant to create a special program for 125 students. The college-ready were steered into training for information technology or clinical lab technology, both considered high-demand fields. Remedial students spent a semester in class learning basic skils with lots of tutoring and “handholding.” Then they got 10 weeks of training to earn a certificate to work as a nursing assistant or welder, or in business.

Graduates in clinical lab technology and welding are finding jobs, but overall Blackhawk students who studied in high-demand fields are no more likely to be working than other students. One ex-factory worker earned an IT degree, but discovered there’s no need for IT specialists in Janesville. He’s working in a grocery store deli.

Years ago, when I reported on welfare-to-work programs for the San Jose Mercury News, I learned that welfare recipients who were pushed into entry-level jobs worked more and earned more several years later compared to similar people sent to education or training programs. “Work first” became the mantra of welfare reform. You’d think job retraining would be more effective for laid-off workers, who have lots of work experience already.  But not if they’re training for nonexistent jobs.