Reflections from Jack Litzenberg: Job training does matter

For the past 15 years, our country’s workforce development system has been rooted in the idea that low-income people can lift themselves out of poverty by entering the labor market and developing their employment skills on the job, rather than in a classroom or training center.

Jack Litzenberg
Jack Litzenberg.

Overall, this “work first” approach did open the doors to employment. Unfortunately, for some low-income, low-skilled workers, that initial step up the career ladder was often their last.

A key reason is that the U.S. labor market has undergone a dramatic change. Entry-level jobs in many sectors, particularly manufacturing, have almost disappeared. Mid-level positions have become more complex, often requiring advanced education and training.

And employers, trying to stay competitive in the global marketplace, are increasingly seeking out workers who already have the skills and experiences relevant to their particular industry.

Yet skeptics all too often dismiss the importance of employment training programs, citing a lack of reputable evidence that such strategies help low-income people succeed in living-wage jobs.

Well, it’s a new day in workforce development, thanks to an exciting new report from a Mott-funded study of sector or industry-focused job training programs which shows that job training really does matter.

Tuning In to Local Labor Markets, published by Public/Private Ventures with assistance from the Aspen Institute, highlights findings from the experimentally rigorous study, launched in 2003, of participants in three well-established sectoral employment programs: The Wisconsin Regional Training Partnership (Milwaukee); Jewish Vocational Service (Boston); and Per Scholas (New York City).

The results, explored in-depth in the new report, are impressive:

  • Participants in the sectoral programs earned an average of 29% or $337 more per month during the second year of the study than did their non-participating counterparts.
  • Participants also worked an average of 250 more hours in the second year and were significantly more likely to work in jobs that offered higher wages and benefits, such as health insurance and paid time off, than non-participants.

When these findings first emerged in early 2009, we were excited about their implications for the country’s approach to workforce development. The report has since been reviewed and scrutinized by a number of noted leaders in the field, including Harry Holzer at Georgetown University, Robert LaLonde at the University of Chicago and William Julius Wilson at Harvard University.

And the collective opinions support what many of us have long-believed: high-quality training that leads to living-wage jobs in growing industries can effectively help low-income families put themselves on the road to self-sufficiency.

The report also points out the ripple effects of the sectoral model. For example, engaging employers in the programs’ design and launch means that participants develop the specific skills those industries are looking for. As a result, those workers are prepared to “hit the ground running,” which reduces the costs to businesses for staff training and turnover. And as companies become more profitable and grow their market share, the local communities benefit through new work opportunities and greater economic impacts.

Many sectoral programs are also strengthening impacts for both workers and employers by helping industries across the country restructure such employment practices as recruitment, hiring, training, promotion and compensation.

In short, job training — including the sectoral approach — does matter to workers, employers, communities and the nation.

We at the Mott Foundation believe that education still is the best pathway out of poverty. This new report highlights the important role of sectoral employment in delivering education to low-income, low-skilled people desiring better employment.