Are Retraining Programs Effective for the Unemployed?

What is more surprising — because no one else has looked at this question lately anywhere in the country — is that the laid-off people around Janesville who went to Blackhawk are faring worse than their laid-off neighbors who did not. We discovered this striking fact by comparing the dislocated workers who retrained with a larger group of about 28,000 residents, from the two counties where most Blackhawk students live, who had collected unemployment benefits recently and not gone to the college.

For one thing, the people who didn’t retrain are working more. About half of them had wages every season of the year, compared with about one in three who went to Blackhawk. An even bigger gap exists in how much those who have jobs are earning. Before the recession, we found, the two groups – the dislocated workers who went to school and the ones who didn’t – were, on average, getting paid about the same. Afterwards, the ones who didn’t retrain are earning more. Their pay has fallen by just 8 percent – about one-fourth the size of the pay drop among the people who went to school. This startled us so much that we dug deeper. We looked at only people working the most. We factored out a few hundred who were still in school. And we looked at just the dislocated workers who had graduated from Blackhawk, rather than dropping out. No matter how we looked at it, those who had retrained were worse off, at least for now, than those who had not

There are few things that both the Democratic and Republican tickets agree on, but one of them is the importance of getting the unemployed into job retraining programs. The question is: Do job retraining programs work? Initial reporting, like this longread from ProPublica, show that they haven’t been too effective. Rep. Paul Ryan has said that one of his friends retrained at Blackhawk Tech, a two-year college in Janesville, Wis. that offers vocational programs to train people to become welders, IT specialists, medical lab technicians, and advanced manufacture workers, and now has a “great career, and he’s happy.”

It’s the sort of can-do, pulling-yourself-up-from-your-bootstraps story that both tickets love to tell. Except it’s not really working in Janesville—at least not yet, according to ProPublica’s report. All the technical training in the world won’t land you a job if there aren’t any jobs to land, which is the biggest reason why retraining programs have yet to succeed. But to offer up a more hopeful perspective: Just because these trained workers have had poor luck finding work in Janesville, doesn’t mean their skills won’t be useful elsewhere. We need a bit more time before we can really gauge how successful these programs really are.

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