But I didn't know that at
the time. I financed a $3,500 course on credit cards, and dutifully
trooped off to class four evenings a week. I passed all the tests.
Then I found out what any professional could have told me: without
actual work experience, no one would hire me.
My classmates were
all in the same boat. Like me, they had found themselves in career
dead-ends. Unlike me, they weren't 22-year-olds who could live at
home. They were people who had been made redundant by technology or
competition: payroll machine operators, verizon line workers, office
managers, various salesmen, secretaries who could type 100 wpm in an
era when bosses were increasingly doing their own typing.
super lucky. The place where I'd trained was doing a corporate
training startup, and they needed someone who could a) type b) work for
low pay and c) futz with the network. The startup lasted for three
months, then, like my jobs before, shut down. But now I had job
experience. It was the tech bubble. I was laid off for less than
twelve hours: I found out at ten, called an employment agency at
10:45, went on my first interview at 1:00, had two job offers by that
evening, accepted one on Friday, and started my new job on Tuesday at a
30% bump in salary.
The rest of my class, nine months later,
was mostly still looking. One other guy had found a job in
technology. The others had wasted $3,500 and five months.
is basically typical of job retraining. Students are overoptimistic.
Schools encourage them in their folly while collecting checks. And
employers demand real-world experience that training can't give. It
works best on people near entry-level, and those with complementary
skills. But that rarely describes the people most in need of
retraining, like displaced autoworkers who have spent decades at
semi-skilled labor no longer in demand.
Government programs do
no better, possibly because they can't run trucking schools and
electrician training programs themselves, so they end up contracting
out to private parties like the school I attended (which did a lot of BOCES
training for the state of New York) or hybrid institutions like
community colleges. Educational output is hard to measure: much
depends on the student themselves. So we tend to measure inputs
instead. Or we measure outputs--"are they employed six months after
graduation?"--without controlling for quality of the jobs.
I'm not surprised to find out that when you actually do try to measure
the impact on student lives, government training programs have a dismal record.
This comports with our experience in the 1980s, when we tried to
retrain people out of the rust belt, and the 1990s, when we tried to do
the same for people displaced by trade. Yet whenever we experience a
dislocating crisis like the auto collapse, all the pundits are out
again calling for job retraining. They're not stupid or disingenuous;
they just don't have any better answer for a very tough question.
given my own experience, it strikes me that we might do better by
targeting employment--offering employers a subsidy for hiring displaced
workers into a job that pays $10 or more an hour. For skilled work,
you might need to pair this with training. But that would give the
workers what they actually need--a job on the resume and a new
skill--rather than a useless diploma.