Is Job-Training Enough For Today’s Jobless Adults?
The following interview is with Carolyn Heinrich, director of the Center for Health and Social Policy at the University of Texas at Austin. In the wake of the recession, Americans across the United States find themselves out of work and looking for a next step. Currently, 2.9 million Americans are long-term unemployed, and the answer for many seems to be centered on job-training programs to help these individuals get back on their feet. In this interview, Heinrich discusses the challenges facing jobless adults in the current labor market and shares her thoughts on the role higher education can play in the recovery.
1. What are the most significant challenges jobless adults face when it comes to finding new work and re-entering the workforce?
There are different groups of jobless adults, and the ones who have been working and have been displaced or dislocated sometimes face extra challenges in the community where they are. Plant closings or significant job losses often put them at multiple competitive disadvantages as there are many other people with the similar sets of skills looking for employment. Oftentimes, they’re rooted in the communities and it’s not easy to pick up and leave. If you have to get new training because, for example, you worked for an automotive plant that closed, you may have to be looking for an entirely different career. Sometimes it’s difficult to start at the lower rungs of the ladder in terms of entry-level employment.
For other people who’ve had little prior work experience, that often makes it challenging for them to break into the workplace and so training can offer opportunity again for really bringing their skills up to date for occupations that are in greater demand.
2. Some government bodies are encouraging adults to enter job-retraining programs to help them find new careers. What is your take on such programs?
There’s a real mix of those types of programs out there for people and part of the challenge is for them to find the right program. Job centers can provide assistance in terms of getting assessment and helping people figure out what their skills are and whether they have a skills base that they can build on that’s in demand, or whether they need to think about a very different type of career.
One of the challenges, too, for people is that there are a lot of different places out there—some private, some for-profit, some non-profit—and getting linked with the right place can be challenging. Sometimes people do get attracted to programs that promise good results and then they don’t always deliver on that. Those are people you hear about that can end up with more debt, expenditures for training and without a job to help them recover from that.
3. How could higher education adapt to better serve jobless adults who are seeking a new start?
That’s a conversation that’s happening right now in the sense that we’re aware that our higher education community colleges do need to do a better job of helping direct people into training and pathways that are actually going to be more likely to lead to a job at the end. One of the challenges there at the community college system is there really isn’t the kind of advising you’ve got at a four-year college.
Some of the most successful graduates are ones that enter health occupations, but a lot of people don’t make choices that lead them in those pathways. There’s a federal government program to encourage training in the health occupations. There’s a move to also possibly hold those community colleges and other educational institutions more accountable for their outcomes. [There’s also a push] to get information into the hands of people who are making decisions about which pathways to choose so that they can be more informed, make better use of their time. There’s also opportunity cost of people taking time off for training; you’ll have fewer hours to work so there are sacrifices that can leave people in worse situations.
There’s ways that the system needs to adapt to help people make better choices and do more to coordinate with employers so that institutions themselves are providing the types of training employers need.
4. Is there anything you’d like to add about some of the major challenges that jobless adults face when it comes to finding new work, and the value of job retraining programs to help them get on that pathway?
We do have newly reauthorized workforce investment opportunities; that does move in the direction of trying to encourage and support more partnerships between institutions and employers. Workers themselves are going to have to learn to be savvy about taking advantage of those opportunities and looking for the right kinds of programs. Hopefully we’ll have more of the right kinds of programs out there for them in the coming years.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator