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It’s time to take job training seriously

By Martha B. Coven

Oct 17, 2018

How do you become middle class in America? Most people would say it’s simple: get a good job. How do you land that job? Well, that’s a harder question to answer.

Policymakers, at all levels of government, often say getting training is the way to land that good job. After all, if employers say they’re looking for skilled workers, it makes sense to expand opportunities for workers to build their skills. So our elected representatives allocate funding to training programs and financial aid and assume they’ve addressed the issue.

But take a closer look, and you realize many training programs are either unproven or ineffective. A lousy program can waste time and money, pushing the dream of a middle-class life even further out of reach.

How does this happen, and what can we do about it?

To start with, we don’t pay enough attention to whether programs actually work. We see smiling faces in a brochure or hear individual success stories and feel good about a program. We fail to ask whether the people who enroll are able to complete the program and secure a job they wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Former U.S. Secretary of Labor Tom Perez has dubbed this the “train and pray” approach.

It’s not enough to feel good; we need to make sure we’re doing good. There’s only one way to know whether a program works, and that’s with a rigorous evaluation. These evaluations require an up-front investment, but that investment pays off many times over in the long run by giving policymakers the information they need to direct funds where they can be confident they’ll have an impact.

Thanks to a handful of careful evaluations, we’re starting to have a sense of what works. For example, independent research on “sector strategies” — where training providers work closely with industry representatives to design programs that meet specific local needs — has shown they deliver on the promise of higher-quality, better-paying jobs. It’s a strategy that works and deserves more support.

Yet too often, policymakers are content to keep renewing existing programs rather than redirecting funds to proven models or investing in evaluations where there are none. They should be asking hard questions, not just about the training programs supported by workforce agencies, but also about college programs financed with Pell Grants and student loans.

There’s only one way to know whether a program works, and that’s with a rigorous evaluation.

Much of the job training in America is provided by colleges, and there’s been an alarming rise in for-profit schools marketing low-quality programs at high prices, including to our nation’s veterans. A recent analysis found that nearly half of students attending for-profit colleges ended up in some kind of loan distress five years later, including one-quarter who outright defaulted on their loans. If their programs had prepared them for good jobs in the local economy, they wouldn’t be struggling so hard to repay those loans.

Training programs will also be more effective if they’re designed to fit the reality of students’ lives. Today’s typical student is not a teenager in a college dorm, but rather an adult with bills to pay and possibly children to support. Students will be more likely to succeed in their training programs if they have a way to cover their living expenses; access to affordable, reliable transportation and child care; and class schedules that fit with their work and family responsibilities. Indeed, researchers who studied New York’s CUNY ASAP program discovered that community college graduation rates nearly double when students get help with textbooks, transportation, and other support services.

If we want all Americans to have a shot at a middle-class life, it’s time to take job training more seriously. That means building evidence about what works and acting on it. And it means treating students like the adults they are and the middle-class Americans they are striving to become.


Martha B. Coven is a Lecturer and John L. Weinberg/Goldman Sachs & Co. Visiting Professor at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public & International Affairs. She served in the White House from 2009 to 2014, as a Special Assistant to the President in the Domestic Policy Council and an Associate Director in the Office of Management and Budget.