Job Training Helps, Just Not With Unemployment

One tactic some unemployed Americans are turning to in this tough job market is to enhance their skill sets. Indeed, even some government money is dedicated to help train the jobless so that they can be more attractive to perspective employers. Yet, a New York Times article today says that these programs aren't doing the trick, since these people often still aren't finding employment. Well, of course they aren't -- all the training in the world can't guarantee someone a job right now.

The article begins as a human interest story of an unemployed executive assistant who utilized a federal program to hone his skills. His training consisted of developing his know-how in essential office computer software for word processing and spreadsheets. Yet, even after the training he still can't find a job. He sums up precisely why:

"Training was fruitless," he said. "I'm not seeing the benefits. Training for what? No one's hiring."

Of course! Even if every unemployed person earned an advanced degree in some emerging field, it wouldn't help right now: there just aren't enough jobs. The very real problem of fewer openings than applicants was highlighted in this chart last week. But then the Times continues:

Hundreds of thousands of Americans have enrolled in federally financed training programs in recent years, only to remain out of work. That has intensified skepticism about training as a cure for unemployment.

Who made the obviously flawed assumption that job training would cure unemployment in the first place? The only thing that can cure unemployment is a recovery in various economic indicators, like sentiment, spending, and business profits. The unemployment rate is so high because firms don't believe that the market's demand supports hiring more workers -- it isn't because they can't find anyone qualified.

That's not to say, however, that training is useless. On the contrary, it could be very beneficial. Eventually, employers will begin hiring again -- in certain industries. Other industries will take longer to recover, like construction. So for those jobless Americans who worked in one of the slower-to-recover sectors, training could help them to make a transition into an industry that might need more workers sooner. But as mentioned, U.S. businesses simply aren't hiring aggressively enough to accommodate 15-17 million unemployed people, no matter how much training they have.

Training is also helpful on a psychological level. When someone is unemployed and cannot get a new job, often they become depressed and pessimistic about their value in the workforce. This isn't only bad on a personal level, but makes the economy worse off, since this psychology makes it even harder for the labor market to recover and be as productive. Training can help to reverse that, giving people a feeling of purpose through participation in a course and more confidence as they learn new skills.

There will also be other very tangible benefits to job training. Think about the gentleman from the Times article. Presumably, he will eventually get another position as an executive assistant or something similar. When he does, he'll be better at his job. His productivity will be higher, and economic growth will be higher too. Better training raises the level of expertise in the workforce, which will benefit the U.S. economy in the long-term.

The reality is that the people who are participating in these training courses are better off sitting in a classroom for an hour or two a day, then sitting on their sofas watching "The Price is Right" or reruns of "Charmed." Since they can't get a job, they might as well do something productive with their time. And the federal money being spent on this effort is mostly pure jobs stimulus anyway, since it creates work for course instructors, as states layoff teachers. Such training needs to be understood in a context of realistic expectations, however. It won't solve the unemployment problem, but it will ultimately help those who participate and raise U.S. productivity.