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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13 Comments / Post A Comment

ImASadGiraffe (#982)

I grew up in Janesville…kinda weird to be reading about it in the news!

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@ImASadGiraffe I used to work in Janesville, while living in Green County. It is weird to see it on the news.
I would like to know more, like are the people working able to travel further for work, like up to Madison or down to Rockford (are there any jobs in Rockford?!?) or god forbid, all the way to Milwaukee? Are people spending so much money on re-training programs, they can’t afford other things, like gassing up three times a week for a long commute or the maintenance on their older car? It’s all very interesting.

readyornot (#816)

The fact that the comparison group (people on unemployment benefits without retraining) worked more than those who did retraining is not robust evidence that the program is not effective. It could simply be that those who could get a new job did so and those who could not sought additional credentials. (selection bias, econometricians would say.)

@readyornot Yeah I didn’t read the article yet but that was my first thought. In some cases it can be controlled for but I don’t know how you’d control for “already has the skills to find a new job” when the outcome you’re trying to measure is “found a new job.”

readyornot (#816)

@stuffisthings You can take all the potential applicants to a job retraining program and randomly assign only some of them to get it. Or you make use of a naturally occurring event which emulates that random assignment, like people just one side or the other of a boundary which qualifies them for the program – a test score, residency in a district, etc.

@readyornot True — I was thinking more of ex post statistical controls you could use on this data set though (like when controlling for SES or education).

readyornot (#816)

@stuffisthings If the worry is selection on an unobservable characteristic, then there is nothing to be done after the fact. As you mention, you can only control for observable characteristics, no matter what technique you use. And here, the worry is definitely that those who got jobs are unobservably different, whether due to motivation, professionalism, or some vague concept like ability. I just don’t trust that the gaps they’re seeing are not from those differences before the program began.

There is a more rigorous study by Lee at Princeton which makes use of exactly the kind of randomization I referred to in a Job Corps training program. He finds wages are increased by the program. I would really rather see policy informed by this kind of careful analysis, and frankly I would rather see this study publicized more in the general media, than I would want more poor quality research with misleading results inserting itself into the national discourse. The ProPublica reporter even makes the note about the potential for selection bias (surely prompted by the labor economists), but it got buried, and Mike of course, like any sensible blogger, did not repeat it here.

I think we also need to de-stigmatize vocational education for younger people, and get those programs to partner with employers to emphasize skills that are actually in demand in the marketplace. It’s one thing to try to re-train a middle-aged worker who is used to making $25/hr on the assembly line to be a lab technician — even if they are successfully able to learn the new skills AND find a job, they’ll likely be right back at entry level again.

But going forward, young people need to realize that high-skill blue collar jobs are a perfectly viable career prospect. Perhaps more so than the traditional, and largely illusory, “white collar office job” that is supposedly your reward for competing four years of college. A person can make more money as a locksmith or a mechanic or in a medical support role than most recent liberal arts grads are making in their soul-crushing office jobs, if they are lucky enough to have them, with the added satisfaction of providing a really useful service (or even saving a life!)

Another great side-effect: you realize that sometimes work is just work, and if you’re happy with what you do and it supports you, you don’t have to have a career that fulfills all your Great Life Ambitions. I mean, can you even imagine a world where our artists are people who fix cars or install storm windows and write/paint/whatever in their free time? I mean, shit, at least we’d have a lot more novels set in Staten Island rather than Brooklyn.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@stuffisthings So true! But how do we convince parents, so they in turn can convince the kids? My mom was one of those “those vochy kids (what we called the kids who went to vocational school) are great, but my daughter sure can’t be one!” parents and that’s just snobby. I don’t think there was anything at vocational school for me, especially as a teen, but maybe they could have gotten me new hands that could actually fix a toilet or cut hair because I would love to have those mad skills and have a good job like that.

I was a liberal arts major who is lucky enough to have an office job that is good-I find interpreters for people, so I find other people jobs and help someone who doesn’t speak English out- bur I’ve done plenty of other office jobs that are not as helpful. But I know when I finally quit the office to work freelance as an ESL teacher, everyone is going to have a fit. Kind of like when I told my snobby mom that I was working at a grocery store right out of college. I don’t know where she got her groceries from but I guess it was from someplace that didn’t employ people…

@josefinastrummer I have a feeling that when the current generation has kids, they will present a much different take on what kind of higher education they will recommend for them…

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@stuffisthings
The Australian populace has started to get wise to the benefits of vocational ed.
The result is that we have all these people studying to become mechanics and hairdressers and stuff, which is great.
Unfortunately, the government has decided that we’re getting too much of a good thing and has decided to increase TAFE (publicly funded community colleges, kind of?) fees to university level heights of expensiveness and reducing incentives for employers to take on apprentices.
This used to be a great option for those who wanted to learn a trade but didn’t have families who could back them.
Now this opportunity will only be presented to kids lucky enough to have parents that could have afforded for their kids to go to Uni anyway.

selenana (#673)

@stuffisthings I know lots of artists who have working class jobs. Among my friends are an electrician who is a touring musician, a guy with an art school degree who is now a medical lab tech, another art degree who helps run the family coffee/tea shop, painters in food service, a writer who is a chef, another fine artist who got laid off from her art teacher job (cutting the arts!) and is now training as a tattoo artist. I guess I travel in different circles. Like not Brooklyn.

readyornot (#816)

@stuffisthings I guess I wonder whether it’s white collar jobs which really are valorized or even suggested more often. Only 40 percent of high school graduates go to any four-year institution, including four-year community colleges. The remainder are split between two-year schools and going into the work force immediately, never mind that not everybody graduates. And I would guess that of that majority of kids not going to four-year schools, they would really love a unionized, steady paycheck, job with stability.

Setting aside the data for a minute, I also think it’s really tempting to want to do something with your hands and not be trapped behind a desk every day. I think it’s even romanticized in American lore. Who’s to say what a stigma really is unless we’ve experienced it? I have friends from college who are organic farmers, welders, dressmakers because the life of making concrete things was so much more appealing than making documents.

And back to the data: I think the next generation of kids would actually benefit from better projections about growth industries. I suspect manufacturing is not actually is, but construction might be, home health assistance for the elderly might be. And if there is some sort of stigma attached to non-office jobs, the kind that would make teenagers forgo higher potential pay, then I think we should really start in high school. There is a move to offer more vocational education in high school, but it needs to be more concerted, respected in the state education standards, and supported.

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