The Road to Tomorrow's Jobs is Not Yesterday's Training

A persistent unemployment rate of about 10% does wonderful things to focus national attention.

Ranging from a cover story in The New York Times, to the bipartisan vote to pass the SECTORS Act, there is suddenly focused attention on the question of how we get unemployed American's back to work.

The New York Times piece hit a nerve among workforce professionals on Monday. The front-page article told the wrenching story of people who had undergone skills training only to be no better off. It also told another side of the story of how training programs tied to the needs of local industry have shown success. The bottom line--traditional general skills training doesn't work; training tied to industries and local business needs does.

An array of fellow workforce professionals jumped on the critique. The fear is that the baby will be thrown out with bathwater and all the federal dollars spent on retraining will be assumed wasted--making it useful electioneering fodder. "Vote for me and I will stop wasting your money on useless programs!" Many are citing a report also published this week by Public/Private Ventures, with assistance from The Aspen Institute, that shows positive outcomes such as ability to find employment, higher wages, and increased benefit among participants in the right kind of training.

I agree whole-heartedly with my colleagues, but would argue that perhaps we are missing the point. The problem is not that we don't know what works, but that so much of the federal money is being directed to exactly those programs that we know don't. The traditional approach to workforce training has largely been to help job seekers polish generic skills and then send them off into the job market. Today, effective training is tied to high-demand occupations, developed in partnership with industry, and provides job seekers with industry-recognized credentials. The economy is changing and legacy models no longer works for automobiles, for the media, for medicine. Why would we still accept an outmoded model for workforce training?

There is nothing nuanced about unemployment. It is personal and painful and binary--either you have a job or you don't. The danger is that frustration with ineffectual training programs will produce a similarly black and white response--all training is either good or bad. It would be the wrong response and it won't get Americans back to work any quicker.