USAT vs. the Job-Training Myth

USA Today does good work on the unemployment beat, looking at the promise of job training—and the disappointment that often follows.

As we’ve been saying, the jobless story is a hard one to tell. But it’s not going away any time soon. Here’s David Leonhardt, after Friday’s jobs numbers were released, on just how stubborn the problem is:

[The economy] would need to add about 15 million jobs over the next four years — more than 300,000 a month — to return the unemployment rate to roughly its December 2007, pre-recession level of 5 percent. That would be faster job growth than in any four-year period of the 1990s boom. It’s not likely.

Job training, and retraining, are often held up as the answer for the unemployed, a way to learn new skills and find new work.

That hopefulness comes through in a New York Times piece today that leads with 51-year-old Regina Myles, who’s been out of work for three years. After 150 interviews but no job offers, she started a training course at a Chicago-area beauty school, with the help of a $3,000 government grant.

“I just know if I am given this chance to finish this course I can make it,” Ms. Myles said after practicing a facial on a classmate at the International Skin Beauty Academy. “I feel like it is my time now.”

Maybe. But maybe not, says USA Today.

Many enrollees do land positions weeks after graduating, and experts say retraining is often the best option for a laid-off worker in a battered industry. But others hunt for months, or even years, with some using federal dollars to retrain multiple times for different occupations. Part of the problem: Though economists say the recession ended last summer, high unemployment pits graduates against both experienced workers who were laid off in the slump and newly trained colleagues. Sometimes job centers funnel too many workers into the same field.

The paper’s long look at the training tale has a lot of good on-the-ground reporting, and talks to folks who’ve been doing what they can to find work. There’s also some smart analysis, and even some hints at how this frustrating situation might be turned around.

But mostly it’s the frustration that comes through.

There’s an Ohio man who lost his job making truck and SUV parts two years ago, then took the advice of a local jobs center, which pointed to an expected shortage of welders.

But since graduating from a 10-month, government-subsidized welding program in early December, Wyman has come up empty in the search for his first gig. Wyman and job-center officials say he’s competing against experienced welders in a still-wounded southwestern Ohio economy.

“I’m getting annoyed and tired,” Wyman says. “All I hear is, ‘We’re short on welders.’ I hear it, but I don’t see it. I maybe could have (taken) a different route.”

The story includes some good data: “Participation in worker retraining funded by the federal Workforce Investment Act (WIA) jumped 70% to 672,000 in the year ended last June, Labor says. But the portion of those in jobs related to their training one year after graduating fell to 67.6% from 83.2% in 2006.”

And it does well to try to explain what’s so hard about matching retraining slots with actual jobs:

Job forecasts can be undercut by unforeseen events such as a plant closing. The promise of some categories projected to be plentiful, such as green jobs, has yet to be fulfilled. And the training system itself is beset by poor communication.”

USAT talks to others, with hopes for new work in healthcare and the great green economy. But it moves a bit quickly over a few key questions—hopefully fodder for more good reporting.

There’s the debate about whether retraining pays off in higher earnings down the line, and the trouble with using federal job forecasts to make decisions about local training programs. There are also the competing agendas of job centers, community colleges, and employers.

I’d like to read more about the approach taken by one Michigan program, which takes on fewer unemployed workers, only funding training when the prospects for a job are strong.

Like we’ve said, there’s going to be more time to tell this story. It’s important to keep reporting on it. Well done to USA Today for its long look. And good luck to that beauty school student.

When she graduates in October, Ms. Myles expects her new skills will help her find a job. “People have a tendency to figure out a way to do our beauty products,” she said.

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at