How Dream-Team Teachers Can Help the Long-Term Unemployed

More than 4 million people have been out of a job and searching for more than a year. Could an online education program taught by the nation's most transformational instructors save them?

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This week's Working it Out question was: "Should anything be done to help the long-term unemployed? If so, what would be your #1 recommendation"

Your comments ranged from: Let 'em fend for themselves to Create government jobs for them!

I'd like to propose a third way. As I wrote in introducing this week's Working it Out question, a New York Times review of job retraining programs said: "For all the popularity of these government-financed programs, there are questions about whether they actually work." But I'm wondering whether, rather than abandoning them, what's required is a new approach to them.

Obviously, job training's effectiveness depends on who's doing the teaching. And training effectively isn't easy. Even courses at brand-name universities often don't generate great growth even in Ivy-caliber students. Think back to how few transformative instructors you had. And consider the frighteningly poor national freshman-to-senior growth. It would be much more difficult still to recruit thousands of instructors capable of transforming the nation's long-term unemployed, into the long-term well-employed -- in a new field, no less. After all, they'll have to compete with many other applicants who are or have been employed in that field and who don't have that huge resume gap indicating they've been passed-over by umpteen employers.

An answer may be in what I call dream-team-taught courses taught online. Imagine if we asked a handful of the nation's proven most transformative instructors of the long-term unemployed to create and deliver an online job retraining course, say in communication skills. Then each of those instructors, paired with a computer programmer who specializes in interactive instruction, would create immersive, simulation-centric lessons. The resulting course would be made available free to all long-term unemployed people and perhaps to others.

That way all students from Maine to California, Harlem to Beverly Hills, would -- instead of the usual mix of great, good, and bad instructors -- receive world-class job retraining at a fraction of the cost of live instructors. Some of the savings could be used to provide a live person at, for example, local unemployment offices, for the human touch.

Of course, even with a dream-team of instructors, the course content must be right. And the content of most previous job retraining programs has been wrong. They've attempted to predict the fields likely to stay hot enough to justify telling the long-term unemployed: Study this for a year or so and you'll probably end up well-employed for a long time.

It's tough to predict which fields will stay hot. After all, 10 years ago, we screamed that we needed nurses, but by the time the next cohort of nurses were recruited and trained, hospitals had long since imported nurses, notably from the Philippines. Two years ago, we screamed, "solar installers!" Already, there's an oversupply.

And even if the hot-job prognosticators picked right, too many trainees ended up unable to acquire the technical skills, or disliking or tiring of the job. Then, trained only in that narrow field, such people hadn't acquired skills that would transfer to another field.

So I believe that Job Training 2.0 should focus on training that wouldn't require a crystal ball into the job market nor into candidates' ability to succeed and be happy long-term in a particular career. It should provide training applicable to many fields. Two such topics that top my list:

Communication. Many people lose their jobs, not because they lack the technical chops, but because of they lack communication skills and are tone-deaf to office politics. Even top executives routinely hire coaches like me to teach them the art of communication (okay, sometimes manipulation.) Some executives pay coaches as much as $250,000! I'd bet that offering dream-team-taught online charm school would yield more employability and better employees than would field-specific training.

Shoestring Entrepreneurship. Even if the long-term unemployed graduated from a dream-team-taught charm school, in our tough economy, I fear that too many of them wouldn't be able to convince employers to hire them and keep them in a job paying middle income. Their best crack at higher income may be to learn how to be an entrepreneur.

I wouldn't train them for the high-risk entrepreneurship that MBA programs focus on: innovative, scalable, go-public companies. Instead, I'd teach the art of starting what I call a shoestring business: something that costs little to start, is ultrasimple, offers high profit margin, isn't offshoreable, and importantly, does not innovate, but rather replicates.

Why replicate? Because the leading edge too often turns out to be the bleeding edge--guinea pigs often die. And too few of the long-term unemployed can afford the failures so common among high-risk start-up ventures.

In a Shoestring Entrepreneurship course, I'd teach students how to start a, for example, shoeshine business: (1) Visit successful shoeshine stands. Amalgamate their best features into your shoeshine stand; (2) Secure a location with lots of well (ahem)-heeled foot traffic, for example, a major city's financial district; (3) Come up with a cute name for it, for example, Rise & Shine or Dianne Feinshine; (4) Run the business for a month to learn its ins and outs; (5) Set up a friend (perhaps another long-term unemployed person) in a second location, asking for a small percentage of the sales; (6) Keep cloning the business until you've made all the money you need.

I wouldn't let the long-term unemployed fend for themselves. I'd reinvent job training: Offer the long-term unemployed (and others) dream-team-taught online courses on skills that would be useful across many careers.