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By Dr. Marie Gould Harper
Program Director, Management at American Public University
LinkedIn’s Managing News Editor, Caroline Fairchild, recently posted a blog article about the effectiveness of retraining. While many people agree that worker retraining is necessary to prepare for the future, it’s not clear that such programs are always useful.
Fairchild quoted a story from Washington Post writer Amy Goldstein. In her book “Janesville: An American Story,” Goldstein chronicled what happened after a General Motors plant shutdown in Janesville, Wisconsin, in 2008. Her story followed the lives of workers who had to start over and retrain for new careers.
Goldstein found that retraining programs for those factory workers was not an adequate solution. “People who had retrained overall were less likely to have work,” Goldstein said. “The difference between their [wages] before the recession and a few years afterward was a bigger slide downwards than compared to people who had not gone back to school.”
Is Worker Retraining the Answer to Automation?
The topic of retraining has been around for a while and has garnered support from various camps. However, is it a good idea that has not been correctly implemented? It seems like retraining has been around for a long time with no definitive answer as to whether or not it is a practice that we should consider to pursue.
According to a 2012 article by Goldstein in the Washington Post, the Government Accounting Office (GAO) has “pointed out the lack of substantial evidence for retraining. In a January 2011 report, the GAO noted that the number of federal employment and training programs for dislocated workers — people knocked out of jobs who are unlikely to find similar ones — and others had swollen lately to 47. ‘Little is known about the effectiveness of most programs,’ the report said.
“Just over four years ago, the Labor Department commissioned the first rigorous evaluation of its most massive retraining program, the Workforce Investment Act, which pays for dislocated workers, as well as poor adults, to go to school. Most of them go to community colleges.
“The study, based on data from a dozen states, found that poor adults who had gone to school with the program’s help had an increase earnings compared with similar people who had not. But among dislocated workers, additional education did not translate anytime soon into better pay or a higher chance of getting a job.”
What Retraining Efforts Have Been Done in the Past?
There are plenty of examples of past retraining efforts. For example, retraining has included programs such as Georgia Work$, Women in Technology and Blue Collar Workers.
According to Annie Lowrey of Slate magazine, “This project was a retraining proposal under the Obama Administration. It matches potential employees with local businesses for on-the-job training. The state pays the worker a sub-minimum-wage stipend and allows her to keep her unemployment benefits for the duration of the program. The employer gets to try the worker out for free.
“The program has the support of many politicians from both parties, and the program has been attempted in three other states. However, the results are not impressive.
“Reports show that businesses have kept on just 1 in 4 of the 23,000 workers who have completed on-the-job training, according to the Wall Street Journal. It is better than nothing. But it is not much.”
Women in Technology
A New York Times story by Eduardo Porter followed the career of Lisa Edwards as she considered how to improve her life. According to Porter, “Lisa Edwards was considering whether to borrow and go back to college when she came upon a flier on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn. It was for a ‘Women in Technology’ program offered by Per Scholas, a nonprofit offering low-income workers training in information technology.
“Ms. Edwards, a middle-age mother of three, emerged from the Per Scholas program with CompTIA A Plus and Network Plus certifications in computers and networking. She first got an apprenticeship at the network operations center of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Then she got another at Barclays Bank, troubleshooting the voice recording systems.
“Though Ms. Edwards makes several thousand dollars less as a Barclays apprentice than at her last post, at Countrywide, she now has more than just a job. She is on a career path offering a shot at progress.”
Blue Collar Workers
Ruth Graham, also of the New York Times, wrote a story titled, “The Retraining Paradox.” Graham reported, “There’s a strange disconnect between two of the big narratives about the American blue-collar workforce right now. In one story, there is a population of unemployed and underemployed working-class adults for whom well-paying work seems increasingly out of reach; their jobs have gone overseas or become automated, and they find themselves working retail, or not working at all.
“But an apparently conflicting story comes from American employers, which have been insisting for years that they have a hard time finding workers to fill many skilled blue-collar jobs. A 2015 report from the Manufacturing Institute, for example, found that seven in 10 manufacturing executives said they faced shortages of workers with adequate tech skills. A high proportion of existing skilled workers is also nearing retirement, which means a more significant gap is looming soon.
“By 2025, the report warned, two million jobs will be going unfilled. (Healthcare, also a big focus of retraining programs, is another rapidly expanding field.)”
Where Is the Problem with Retraining?
Some reasons about retraining are not impressive. Here is a story from my personal experience.
In the late ‘90s, I had the opportunity to participate in a retraining program. I watched as an insurance company worked with a community college to train welfare recipients on claim processing.
From an academic standpoint, the plan was solid. The insurance company truly partnered with the community college in providing the appropriate learning objectives needed for a potential employee to be successful in the job.
In addition to the education component, the graduates received an on-the-job training period. That training period allowed them to apply what they learned to the actual job.
This retraining program seems like a model of success, right? Wrong. Of all of the graduates placed in the organization, only a single digit percentage remained at the job.
Why were the efforts a failure? In my opinion, the organizers of the project spent a lot of time getting the process in place. But they did not look at external influences, which is what led to the program’s failure.
External Influences Play a Role in Retraining
Many welfare recipients have children. If you provide daycare while they go through training, what happens once they go to an actual job? If you don’t address or discuss that issue, you have new hires attempting to add an extra step in their routine.
In this retraining program, for example, the newly trained workers had to find affordable daycare centers that were close to their jobs. Some of the workers were late to work on a regular basis because they had to take public transportation to get their children to the daycare center, which was another expense. Although they had jobs and a new set of skills, they also encountered a new set of costs.
Another external influence was each worker’s home life. Many of the job candidates in the program were women. However, the highest retention rate of candidates were the men.
One reason for the retention rate difference could be the perception of the sexes in the local communities. The men were successful because the completion of the program was seen as a sign of the “breadwinner” being able to provide for his family.
However, some of the women in the retraining program experienced an increase in domestic violence. Why? Their significant others were still unemployed. There was resentment of the women’s progression; the men in their lives felt they were being left behind.
In sum, the retraining program took care of the technical aspects of employment such as improving knowledge and job skills. However, it ignored finding solutions to deal with life issues that affected program success.
Some of my retraining program’s findings can be applied to some other programs that I mentioned. Ultimately, the success of a retraining program is dependent on whether or not the program deals with the whole person and considers the organization’s culture. Otherwise, we are providing education without addressing other components that would make the program successful.
During the past 20 years, we have started to recognize the effects of an organization’s culture on employee success, morale and productivity. If we are to turn around the success rate of these programs, we will need to consider:
- Obtaining feedback from grassroots employees doing the jobs. We need information on what a typical workday is like and evaluate what is required from a holistic perspective to do the job (i.e., is flexibility an option).
- Having educational instructors spend some hands-on experience at the job. We have experts who know their field and can provide an overview of what is needed to be successful. But how often do we allow these experts to experience the job themselves so they can address job environment issues?
- Following up with the graduates about one to three months after they have been on the job to find out what worked and what didn’t work. In essence, we need to put in a process to collect “after training” data and improve the process.
The key to the retraining problem is a customized needs assessment and an evaluation phrase to secure continuous improvement in the process. It’s not enough to want to do the right thing and throw money into retraining programs. We also have to invest time investigating and addressing those external influences.
Start a management degree at American Public University.
About the Author
Dr. Marie Gould Harper is the Program Director of Management at American Public University. She holds an undergraduate degree in psychology from Wellesley College, a master’s degree in instructional systems from Pennsylvania State University and a doctorate in business from Capella University. She is a progressive coach, facilitator, writer, strategist and human resources/organizational development professional with more than 30 years of leadership, project management, and administrative experience. Dr. Gould Harper has worked in both corporate and academic environments.
Dr. Gould Harper is an innovative thinker and strong leader, manifesting people skills, a methodical approach to problems, organizational vision and ability to inspire followers. She is committed to continuous improvement in organizational effectiveness and human capital development, customer service and the development of future leaders.