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Can job training work?

One of Mayor-elect Gray's top priorities is improving job training to reduce unemployment that has reached crisis levels in Wards 7 and 8. Gray will hold a Jobs Summit on Dec 13 to gather ideas on training.

Photo by Michael @ NW Lens on Flickr.

Momentum appears to be building for greater investments in training. Councilmember Marion Barry's proposal to cut off TANF benefits after 5 years presumes such a boost in training.

And massive job training is often viewed as the only possible hedge against displacement of long-term working-class residents as gentrification continues across the city.

But does training work? Or could training simply end up costing DC far more than the money it would save by cutting 17,000 families off of welfare?

There is a real debate about the effectiveness of public investment in job training. The debate generally proceeds as follows.

Training Doesn't Work: The millions that have been spent on training in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, as was shown by the Labor Department and the NY Times, have demonstrated zero results. It makes us feel better, but the data shows that recipients of publicly subsidized training end up pretty much like they did before the training.

Training Works: This criticism is true in general. Many, perhaps most, training programs have been poorly executed. But studies, such as a recent study from Public/Private Ventures, have shown that training programs that target high-demand jobs in a city's growth sectors do work.

Training Doesn't Work: Not if the jobs simply aren't there. Training doesn't create jobs.

Training Works: No, but training does close the mismatch between the skills required by high-demand jobs and the skills of the unemployed. And employers in high-growth fields report that they are having trouble filling lots of positions due to precisely this mismatch.

Furthermore, if we can create a workforce whose skills do match the needs of high-growth fields, employers will be attracted to DC and will create more jobs. So, training can create jobs in the long term if it targets high-demand jobs that employers have difficultly filling.

Training Doesn't Work: This sounds great. But the mismatch between the skills of most unemployed and the needs of the labor market, particularly in DC, is sadly too great for training to bridge.

More than 40% of jobs in DC require a college degree, while nationally only 20-22% of jobs require a college degree. Yet 36% of DC residents are functionally illiterate.

Approximately 18,000 TANF recipients have less than a high school credential and almost 50% are reading below 7th grade. What training does Councilmember Barry expect will match these 18,000 TANF recipients with the jobs that exist in DC?

What do you think? Can job training work? Is the skills mismatch sadly too great to bridge? What implications do these considerations have for Gray's job training plans?

Gray's Jobs Summit, which will be chaired by Barbara Lang, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, and Josyln Williams, head of the Metropolitan Council of the AFL-CIO, should address these difficult questions head on.

Ken Archer is CTO of a software firm in Tysons Corner. He commutes to Tysons by bus from his home in Georgetown, where he lives with his wife and son. Ken completed a Masters degree in Philosophy from The Catholic University of America. 


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If the unemployed are to a large degree functionally illiterate then literacy can be part of the training. Their illiteracy isn't a reason to either say 1) It's a lost cause why bother let's keep everyone on welfare or 2) Suggest that we need to focus on creating jobs suited for illiterates.

by Paul on Dec 2, 2010 1:58 pm • linkreport

I was about to say the same thing as Paul's first sentence. What exactly is "job training?" For people with a 7th grade education I would think that "job training" is "getting your GED and learning to speak English." That is an admirable goal, and there is no doubt it my mind that getting people to a basic high-school level education will improve their job prospects. And probably lower crime.

Beyond that, though, what could such a program do? Teach people to write resumes, dress well, and not be rude? Fine. But trade-specific skills are trade-specific skills. Are we just going to pay to send people to the ITT Technical Institute or shop class or some vocational school?

If we're going to try to improve the quality of our workforce I think the only sensible thing to do at any kind of large-scale level is to basically send them back to high school.

by Jamie on Dec 2, 2010 2:05 pm • linkreport

The issue here is about education, not about job training. Demanding job training but then complaining about education reform is why so many in this city are being left behind. Education comes before training.

If someone isn't literate and doesn't even have a high school diploma, what kind of job training can we provide them, especially when so many jobs not only require high-levels of literacy but also a college degree? DC needs to do a much better job of educating children before it spends a lot of money on job training for adults.

There is nothing wrong, however, with retraining workers. Jobs and fields come and go. But it is entirely different to retrain someone who was a functioning worker and to train someone who lacks a basic education and hasn't had a real job.

There is a big difference between training and retraining. But ultimately, this city needs more education. 36 percent of DC residents are illiterate and that's far to high for any place on Earth, let alone a city that needs highly-educated workers.

But let's be real for a second here: Almost half of the jobs in DC require a college degree. Not only does the DC region have a lot of highly educated adults (and people from all over the country who are willing to move here for a job), but many of those people are highly skilled and went to elite colleges and universities. I'm not really sure how you take a functionally illiterate, uneducated adult and get him to compete in a job market like that.

So, I'll repeat: It all starts with a good primary education.

by Patrick Thornton on Dec 2, 2010 2:13 pm • linkreport

I count myself firmly on the "doesn't work" side. I think a much better strategy would be to open up more skilled-but-not-degree'd trades to competition - allow home-cooked meals to be sold openly (currently illegal...everywhere), allow barbers and hairdressers/braiders to work without licenses (currently illegal most places), etc. - and hope that these currently functionally illiterate and not-formally-educated workers can at least make a decent enough living to give their kids better than they had.

I would imagine that most of the unemployment is concentrated among the city's large black population, who are the exact people who would benefit most from liberalizing professions like cooks and hairdressers (which, in the black community, have traditionally worked out of homes without licenses for decades).

by Stephen Smith on Dec 2, 2010 2:18 pm • linkreport

So..."job" training, as vague as that is works someplaces. The District of Columbia is not one of them.

The District has had "job training" programs in place since the early 80's. Barry used to campaign on them.

Yet, here DC is 30 years later with a worst illiteracy rate than before.

Even during the 2001-2007 boom period where unskilled jobs were growing on trees, the Districts unemployment rate was still twice that of neighboring suburbia.

So yes, while job training most other places measn retooling some moderately skilled laborer for another labor position, it means (or should mean) teaching tens of thousands of 20-40 year olds in the District the ability to read above a 4th grade level.

DC's economy is a service economy. Our unemployment rate would be faar less if we had some Detroit-like industry where we could emply a bunch of people on an assembly line, but we dont.

by freely on Dec 2, 2010 2:19 pm • linkreport

GOOD job training works. There are many examples of organizations that offer good job training -- The Excel Institute, SOME Center for Employment Training, Goodwill, etc. They can demonstrate real success -- high placement rates, followed by high retention rates.

What these, and other organizations like them, know is that good job training does not stand alone. Good training integrates with adult literacy and other forms of education, as well as with case management, and helps ensure those being trained are able to find and keep good jobs. Case management helps trainees identify potential challenges (e.g., child care, transportation) and ways to address them.

Unfortunately, too many funding sources think of training as a one-off - send someone to a short-term training program, and that's the end of it. We need systemic integration of all of the services that, when applied together, ensure job training will work.

As to education -- the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce published a report recently. The report, entitled Jobs 2018, estimates that, by 2018, more than 70 percent of jobs in DC will require education (not training) beyond high school. That speaks to a critical need for adult education now for the more than one-third of DC adults who lack even a high school credential.

Marina Streznewski
DC Jobs Council

by Marina Streznewski on Dec 2, 2010 2:44 pm • linkreport

I agree that education should occur before job training. But I have always assumed those taking advantage of such programs are already high school graduates? Won't most of the jobs they are being trained for will likely require them to have a high school diploma or GED? From what I've seen in my area, many unemployed high school graduates don't have the skills to compete for decent waged job. Those are the people who can benefit from a job training program which have always included but never limited to "interviewing techniques and actual craftsmen/trades occupations.

Currently, the unemployed represents those who have supposedly completed high school. Ensuring our kids are educated is a somewhat different matter.

Stephen, do we really want to legalize the opportunity for people to cook food they prepare, in their own homes, with their own verson of sanitiation, and offer it to the public without a license? Or a barber/beautician doing your hair out of their basement? I get the entreprenuerial apsect of your argument but it sounds like a really bad idea.

I'm a member of the black community and I can say w/o reservation that I've rarely seen cooks, hairdressers, barbers et. al, do business out of their homes w/o licenses. Are you sure you aren't referring to 50 years ago rather than the decades you mention?

by HogWash on Dec 2, 2010 2:52 pm • linkreport

Good thoughts. Hard to say "we'll get your jobs" if the biggest issue is functional illiteracy and lack of sufficient educational accomplishment (i.e., a high school diploma).

But it's much better political theater to blame the DC unemployment rate on all those Maryland and Virginia people "taking" those jobs, rather than decades of failed DC gov't policies and programs.

But hey- all we need is a 1% income tax increase and it'll solve all these problems!

by Fritz on Dec 2, 2010 3:14 pm • linkreport

I think the answer is a 2 BILLION dollar football stadium...that will motivate people to learn to read, that and trusting the teachers unions to do what's best for the children.

It is time for the city to take a very public approach to tackle the illiteracy rate by making it a condition to get the food assistance and welfare.

Set a goal to reduce it to 5% within 10 years and put the "training" money to that. Without people being literate, you can not even begin to "train" them other skills. We just keep flushing money down the toilet to line the pockets of the non profit do gooders and the politically connected.

by Joe on Dec 2, 2010 3:31 pm • linkreport

What Patrick Thornton said.

The other issue with "training" is that by the time certain programs get set up and running, the market rationale for them may shift.

Better to focus on educational reform and the public schools. I am also a huge advocate of community colleges. There is no question that skilled to non-skilled, everybody is likely to undergo a career shift AT LEAST once in their life (either planned or unplanned) and cc's can play a huge role in facilitating transitions. Puttering around with a few cc classes hugely influenced my decision to make a career change and pursue a masters degree in a new field. Some of my CC classes were far more useful and interesting (and better taught) than a few of my graduate classes, and I met some really interesting people. Some people think of CC's as a joke, but I am immensely grateful for my experience and it gave me a kick start to becoming a much happier person.

by spookiness on Dec 2, 2010 3:58 pm • linkreport

One thing we know about employment is that soft skills are every bit as important: punctuality, minimal level of middle-class social graces, appropriate dress.

There is a not-insignificant percentage of the *chronically* unemployed that simply don't possess these skills, and frankly, by the time they're in their teens, may not have the temperament to acquire easily.

We're not talking about out-of-work call center analysts who just need some skill-tweaking. In another life, I managed a small business in a poor neighborhood. For many of my applicants--Hell, for many of my employees--things like GEDs and illiteracy were the least of my worries.

by oboe on Dec 2, 2010 4:33 pm • linkreport

"in their teens" -> "out of their teens"

by oboe on Dec 2, 2010 4:34 pm • linkreport

Job training does work, but its sadly true that too many of DC's unemployed are completely unsuited for many jobs in DC. Its also sad to hear government types boost various business developments in the region, and how this will boost employment, but fail to tell the residents that many of them will be unable to get a job with the shiny new company. Given the failures of DC schools, I think that training is almost a moral issue for those that the schools failed.

by SJE on Dec 2, 2010 4:57 pm • linkreport

I've tried to post something in response to this but the computer had shut down and I'm not sure if it has been posted or in the registry, but I'm going to make this one as brief as possible. #1)I agree with most of the posters on this topic. Education-especially literacy, in addition to mathematical skills and basic computer skills are extremely important and a very critical contribution to the Job Training Program. #2) Participants of this program would also have to adhere to somewhat, strict guidelines concerning such things as; attendance, acheiving courses and guidelines of the program, dress code gudelines-just to name a few. #3) in addition to this, there need to be some required classes concerning; interviewing skills and etiquette, office or workplace etiquette, and resume' / cover letter writing. If I am correct, there is a program in New York that follows these guidelines that I've mentioned-with a no-nonsense approach and concept. The bottom line is that everyone must work in order to survive. If you don't work you don't eat. This is not directed to those who've worked, but became unemployed due to a job loss and the economy. But is directed to those who are able bodied but never had a job, never had made any attempts of becoming employed nor having any intentions of getting a job or job training. At least make the initiative to try to improve your life and the lives of your families by taking full advantage of this opportunity, because it may not come again.

by Charmaine on Dec 2, 2010 4:58 pm • linkreport

A lot of snobbish comments by people who obviously haven't ;earned that many social graces themselves. Moreover, the obsessive faith in education neglects the limitations that are obvious to people such as myself who have taught college students, including graduates of some of the more heralded suburban districts.

Training that happens on the job through internships, etc. is more effective than most training programs based on teaching skill sets. There remain a great deal of semi-skilled and relatively unskilled jobs that need to be done and can be accommodated by an economy that's doing better than elsewhere. The corollary is creating capital that will ultimately create jobs in places where they don't exist.

by Rich on Dec 2, 2010 8:08 pm • linkreport

I would imagine that most of the unemployment is concentrated among the city's large black population, who are the exact people who would benefit most from liberalizing professions like cooks and hairdressers (which, in the black community, have traditionally worked out of homes without licenses for decades).

If you eliminate licensing, you aren't going to increase the amount of hair to be dressed in the city, you're just going to either substitute one hairdresser for another, or you're going to increase the number of hairdressers but they will all be underemployed. Neither of these seems actually helpful.

by David desJardins on Dec 3, 2010 12:38 am • linkreport

@ Rich,
I also agree with you that internships or externships will help aid in the training process from a hands on perspective. However, are you aware of how difficult it is to get an internship that is not directly related to an educational or vocational program-due to the high demand and rate of those seeking and applying for those internships? I too, am in that situation (concerning my attempts to land an internship related to my field of study), but ended up seeking alternative measures such as; volunteering at a non-profit organization to gain the experience needed. My point is, that education is important, because if someone is not able to read, how would they be able to comprehend and follow a set of instructions given to them? Even more, if they are not able to handle basic mathematical skills how would they be capable of carrying out such tasks such as; taking measurements if the job required them to do so? With that being said, there are also a great amount of people in this area that are not "computer literate" or "computer savvy" and in this society, just about everything is operated by computers or a computer-based system. Yes, hands on training such as; internships and externship play a major role in gaining acquired the skills and experience needed to obtain employment. However, if a person cannot read, write or incorporate the basic set of math skills. How would they be able to enter into a job training program, which would prepare them for the real working world? And once again, I am not talking about those who've recently became unemployed due to the economy or a lay-off. I am speaking of those who've never had any of those basic skills from the beginning. In order to get ahead or at least get a start, you must have the basics.

by Charmaine on Dec 3, 2010 1:09 am • linkreport

@ Rich,
It's like this. In order for a person to drive a vehicle, one must first learn the concepts and protocols of driving, traffic/parking laws and procedures. A test must be taken to obtain a Learner's Permit. Then after the "hands-on"; the practice of driving, another test must be taken and passed before obtaining the actual Driver's License. At least this is the order in which it is supposed to be. My point is that the basics must be learned in addition to the soft skills as well as the hands-on. They all work together, but the basics is the key.

by Charmaine on Dec 3, 2010 1:16 am • linkreport

Rich: there is plenty of work to be done by people without college degrees. The problem is that there are many more people looking to do that work than work itself.

I also agree that an obsessive faith in education is misplaced, and that on-the-job training is best. For example, my brother barely graduated high school and learned everything on the job. Fortunately, he is smart and hard working, and has a great job. However, if you do not have a job, you are not getting such training. You need to have some marketable skills to get the job.

by SJE on Dec 3, 2010 10:02 am • linkreport

It could work and probably does work for some, but the bigger problem is work ethic, or lack thereof. Hard workers who are committed to work will always find it, though it may pay less than they can get from TANF or elsewhere. If they are indeed hard workers (with a strong work ethic) they'll live with that disparity as receiving charity is shameful. If they're not they'll take the perma-TANF from DC. Sadly I think that over the generations we've distilled a lot of the latter sorts here in DC with the harder workers moving elsewhere.

Most of these terms are subjective though: ethic, hard, strong, a lot, etc. and impossibly to effectively quantify. I'd rather we offer every possible job training opportunity (including learning to read and such) and less opportunities to receive charity for the able bodied. Cold and hunger are the best ways to instill work ethic in my opinion. That may be merciless and heartless but the world is a mean and tough place.

by DCexpat on Dec 3, 2010 5:12 pm • linkreport

Cold and hunger are the best ways to instill work ethic in my opinion.

Is your opinion based on any actual evidence? The evidence that I've seen suggests that desperation mostly leads to hopelessness, and an increase in crime and other undesirable outcomes.

by David desJardins on Dec 3, 2010 7:17 pm • linkreport

It's true that loosening license requirements might lead to more barbers each making less money. But if it costs less to become a barber--if prospective barbers don't need to complete 1500 hours of barber school and take out thousands of dollars in loans--then most barbers might end up being better off even though their income is less. (The ones who have already completed the onerous license requirements won't benefit, of course, which is probably the principal political obstacle to reform.)

by Steven desJardins on Dec 4, 2010 3:46 am • linkreport

If we assume that the training required for licensing has no actual value, then we should surely get rid of it, and obviously the people who do the same job while avoiding a waste of time and money will be better off for it. But that still won't increase employment, which was the stated goal here.

by David desJardins on Dec 6, 2010 1:27 am • linkreport

i read all the comments and there were some very good ones, but what seems to be lost is the fact that in reality we can't train our way out of unemployment. for every one job there are five applicants, so even with training, the numbers don't change. does that minimize the need for training? no, but it does require a taking another look at how we approach job training. we need to ensure that job training is directly connected to employers who have jobs to fill, and are willing to hire qualified, dc residents, just as was done recently with the opening of a new ihop in columbia heights that was a private and partnership resulting in the employment of 160 dc residents.

that's how you make things happen. you go to employers and ask them what jobs they need to fill, and then offer to get them folks who can fit the bill, and provide a rather impressive tax credit, as well. now that's an offer that's hard to refuse. the old way of training people and then doing job search is ineffective in such an entrenched economy. those folks who completed training are still going to be affected by the 1/5 ratio, in fact they're affected more because they lack the desired experience in too many cases.

so is training working in dc? i would have to unequivocally say no! and i think a comprehensive look at training under wia as administered by does would reveal numerous failures and shortcomings. in fact, just last year does was cited for 18 deficiencies by the department of labor, a fact seemingly lost by the oversight of the committee on housing and workforce development, chaired by councilman michael brown.

a gray administration will hopefully be more focused on workforce development issues, but quite frankly i'm surprised that there has been little discussion so far about the role of the workforce investment council (wic), a federally mandated body set up to develop the workforce development strategy for the city and oversee does one stop operations and training under the workforce investment act of 1998 (wia). it has never fully carried out its mandate and was not well received from the outset. and as a result, it has served as a rather ineffective body, thanks in part to a lack of executive support. so if gray is smart, he will begin to give more attention to the role and importance of the wic, and how it can be another tool in his tool chest to address unemployment and the economy.

by carl mintz on Dec 9, 2010 1:33 pm • linkreport

Michael Bloomberg's recent speech included comments on job training. It's hard to tell if what he describes is actually increasing employment, or just filling jobs that would have been filled anyway:

“We’ve seen what a difference it can make here in New York City. Up until 2004, our Workforce One Career Centers were placing about 500 New Yorkers in jobs a year. Last year, in the depth of the national recession, we made 25,000 job placements – a fifty-fold increase. And this year, we’re on track to reach 30,000 job placements. How did we do it? We did it by completely revamping our Workforce centers, by connecting our job-training programs to our economic development programs and offering training in the skills that companies are looking for now – not five years from now. By doing this, we’ve been better able to connect the supply of labor to the demand for labor. And we’ve also improved access to our training and placement services, by expanding the number of centers and their hours of operation.

“Today, we are announcing that we will open 10 new Workforce One Express Centers across the City over the next year. The Express Centers will focus exclusively on screening and matching jobseekers to jobs – and they will partner with community colleges, public libraries, and neighborhood organizations in areas where there are high concentrations of unemployment. Our goal is to increase job placement to 35,000 in 2011, and to 40,000 in 2012.

“Cities across the country have expressed interest in our approach – and the federal government is wisely funding the replication of our approach in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and parts of Ohio. But it could help many more unemployed people by opening more centers like ours around the country, especially in areas with high concentrations of unemployment.

by David desJardins on Dec 9, 2010 1:57 pm • linkreport

Why was this posted without details? I would assume it was posted, in case someone wanted to attend. However, giving the day and location is useless without a time.

by dcJames on Dec 13, 2010 6:08 am • linkreport

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