Most workers learn additional skills throughout their work-life. In that sense, it's obvious that job training in some contexts works for adults. But for many of us, the additional learning happens in the context of remaining in the same job, or at least on the same broad career path. The harder question is whether it's possible to do the kind of job training with adults, perhaps adults who have just experienced a negative shock to their previous job, that jump-starts them on a career path. Paul Osterman offers a useful discussion of these issues in "Employment and training for mature adults: The current system and moving forward" (Brookings Institution Future of the Middle Class Initiative, November 2019). Here are a few themes from his report that stuck with me:
Overall Perspectives on Adult Training in the United States
The United States does not have a training system for adults if what is meant by the term “system” is a well-articulated set of programs or opportunities that fit together in a logical stepwise way and which are readily accessible to all those who are interested or need assistance. What the United States does have is a diverse set of opportunities, some large and some small, and for some of these we know what is best practice and for some we are in the dark about effectiveness. ... According to the OECD in 2016 Germany spent six times more than the U.S. relative to GNP on pubic training programs and France spent ten times more.
Many Employers Seem to be Trying to Hand Off Job Training the Public Sector
Firms have long been at the center of the American system of job training and the classic model has been that schools provide general skills training while the skills for specific jobs are provided by employers. ... [T]he historical division of labor between firms and public training organizations that has underwritten the U.S. system appears to be in doubt. Although the data are weak there is at least reason to believe that firms are expecting public training institutions to play a greater role than they have in the past in providing specific vocational training. ... It is difficult to assess the extent to which this arrangement continues because reliable data on the firm based training are simply not available with the last national survey a decade old. ... The rhetoric of the employer community regarding the importance of public training systems, especially community colleges, suggests a possible effort to shift training costs to the public sector. A benign explanation would be shorter job tenures which make recouping of training costs more difficult or, alternatively, that skills are becoming more general, perhaps due to the increased importance of computer skills. A less benign explanation is simply cost shifting. Until we have better data we will not have an answer about trends or explanations.
Community Colleges are Underfunded but Work Well--For Those Who Complete a Degree
The good news about community colleges is that when students complete a degree or certificate the rate of return is good. ... All this said, there are important concerns regarding community colleges the most central of which is retention and graduation. Reported rates are weak—nationally 39.2 percent of community college full or part-time students who enrolled in 2012 earned a credential from either a two or four year school within six years of initial enrollment ...
Community colleges are at scale but face several challenges, the first of which is that they are underfunded. Per pupil operating expenditures is less than half that of four year bachelor’s (not masters and not research) private colleges and state higher education funding streams have yet to attain levels in 2008 prior to the Great Recession. Another way of seeing this is to note thatt he U.S. Department of Education estimates that in 2016-2017 the instructional costs per full-time equivalent student in public 2-year institutions were about $6,900 compared to $12,700 in public four year schools. The consequences are both higher tuition levels, which challenge access, as well as inadequate support systems which have significant implications for retention and completion.
Intermediary Systems, Where Industry or Employers Partner with an Intermediary or Community College Can Work Well
The core best practice components of intermediaries are close relationships with employers (the so-called dual customer model), support services and counseling for clients, and substantial investments in training. Depending on the specific program the actual training is either done by the intermediary itself or by a community college. If the training is the responsibility of the community college the intermediary works closely with that institution around issues of scheduling and support. In order to achieve the close relationship with employers intermediary staff become knowledgeable about the nature of the industry and the needs of employers. Intermediaries which adhere to this broad model may be sponsored by community groups, business associations, or unions. ... A strong example is Project QUEST in San Antonio which was subject to an RCT with a nine year follow up. QUEST exemplifies the best practice elements described above. From year three to year nine participants earned significantly more than the control group and by year nine the gap was over $5,000 per year in annual earnings. These impacts are not unique to QUEST and other rigorous evaluations of best practice intermediaries also find positive results.
We Don't Have Successful Models of Retraining Mature Adults Who Have Lost Their Jobs
Mature adults who lose their jobs are a distinctive group, representing a challenging population, for obvious reasons: on average lower levels of education and embedded personal and family commitments that often limit options. In addition the stigma of job loss is an additional burden given that potential employers may fear that it is a negative signal. There are very few credible assessments of training interventions for this group. The raw data from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program (which only captures a subset of the dislocated worker population) are not encouraging: in 2017 72.5 percent of program participants entered employment post program participation and of these the earnings replacement ratio for 40-49 year olds was 83.9 percent and for 50-59 year olds 75.3 percent (the earnings replacement ratios were much better for young people).40 A Mathematica evaluation of TAA using the experience of the early 2000’s found between a zero and a negative impact on earnings although, again, younger participants did better.
We Don't Yet Have Good Evidence on Some New Alternative Training Models
[W]e have little understanding regarding the scope and performance of new training models—boot camps, on-line programs, and certificate programs offered by non-traditional institutions. It is clear that this is a heterogenous collection and it seems likely there is diversity in performance and in what lessons can be learned about delivering skill.
My own bottom line is that there's a lot of talk about how new entrants to the job market need more training, and how current workers and those between jobs need both training in their current work and sometime to pick a different career path. But the actual commitment to making this happen has not come close to matching the rhetoric. Two basic steps would to raise spending on community colleges by $20 billion or so, and to work much harder on involving business leaders in a conversation of what skills and training they are ready and willing to hire and promote.
The Osterman paper was part of a three-paper conference symposium about "Research on Automation and the Middle Class." An overview is here. The three papers are:
A version of this article first appeared on Conversable Economist.
Timothy Taylor is an American economist. He is managing editor of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, a quarterly academic journal produced at Macalester College and published by the American Economic Association. Taylor received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Haverford College and a master's degree in economics from Stanford University. At Stanford, he was winner of the award for excellent teaching in a large class (more than 30 students) given by the Associated Students of Stanford University. At Minnesota, he was named a Distinguished Lecturer by the Department of Economics and voted Teacher of the Year by the master's degree students at the Hubert H. Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. Taylor has been a guest speaker for groups of teachers of high school economics, visiting diplomats from eastern Europe, talk-radio shows, and community groups. From 1989 to 1997, Professor Taylor wrote an economics opinion column for the San Jose Mercury-News. He has published multiple lectures on economics through The Teaching Company. With Rudolph Penner and Isabel Sawhill, he is co-author of Updating America's Social Contract (2000), whose first chapter provided an early radical centrist perspective, "An Agenda for the Radical Middle". Taylor is also the author of The Instant Economist: Everything You Need to Know About How the Economy Works, published by the Penguin Group in 2012. The fourth edition of Taylor's Principles of Economics textbook was published by Textbook Media in 2017.