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Job Training in a Jobless Recovery

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This piece was co-published by Maureen Conway, Deputy Director, the Aspen Institute, and Robert P. Giloth, Vice President, Annie E. Casey Foundation.

The folks who do job training at Per Scholas in the South Bronx have a tradition of ringing a bell every time one of their graduates gets a job. One recent afternoon, they rang the bell 22 times as a whole class of computer technicians found work with the same employer.

That's quite an accomplishment at any time, but amid today's jobless recovery - with unemployment topping 10 percent - it's downright remarkable. As President Obama considers the advice from his White House job summit and begins his "Main Street Tour," he should study the lessons of programs like this that can adapt quickly to industry demand and deliver jobs for low-income workers.

The approach is simple: pick an industry. Build relationships to find out what jobs are available and skills are needed. Then adapt training specifically to those jobs and skills. In Milwaukee, that means teaching laid-off bricklayers to do caulking. In Los Angeles, that means retooling a training program that targets local ports to focus instead on security firms. In Baltimore, that means creating a pipeline to move low-wage workers into health care careers.

These should be flush times for the workforce development field. The $4 billion promised in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is finally starting to reach nonprofit and local agencies, the first real infusion of cash after many lean years. Department of Labor spending on employment and training dropped from $17 billion in 1979 to $5.5 billion in equivalent dollars in 2008.

But the new money is arriving amid the worst recession in memory, leaving some program leaders worried about where to find work for their trainees. Some of the most reliable employers are simply not hiring--or have thousands of seasoned pros sitting on the bench.

Consider construction: with much of the workforce due to retire in the next few years, there should be room for new hires and apprentices. A recent survey by the Aspen Institute found plenty of nonprofit organizations and local agencies ready to train workers in construction skills.

But right now the unemployment rate in construction is a staggering 18.7 percent, with some 1.6 million jobs lost since the recession began. Employers simply aren't hiring.

Earl Buford is witnessing this in southern Wisconsin, where placements are down at Big-Step, a unique collaboration he runs among construction businesses, organized labor and workers. Recently, though, the bricklayers union asked him to train laid-off workers how to do caulking, a skill suddenly in greater demand. As his staff created a program, Buford found the public and private dollars to pay for it.

At Per Scholas, CEO Plinio Ayala was delighted when an employer came to him looking for computer technicians. But they had to be certified to work on Apple computers, something the Bronx training program had never handled. Ayala sent a trainer to a two-week crash course and found 30 discarded Apples in his warehouse. Within a month, Per Scholas modified its curriculum to include Apple repair, which led to the bell ringing.

Both the Bronx and Wisconsin programs are part of a recent study by Public/Private Ventures that found workers trained in such sector-based approaches earned more money and were more likely to remain employed than similar workers not chosen for the programs. Many of these employees were young, poor, African-American or Latino--among the groups hit hardest by unemployment.

Yet for every success, there are hundreds of programs and thousands of workers who fail to connect training to jobs. We cannot simply conclude that training doesn't work. That's like saying education doesn't work. Training works if it's done right: linked to actual job openings or to skills missing in a region's economy.

This is important to remember in the amorphous field of "green jobs," a priority in the recovery act. The national emphasis needs to take into account regional realities: training for solar power installation, for instance, makes more sense in Arizona than Michigan.

The federal government has a key role to play here. After years of neglect, workforce development has the attention of some administration leaders who appreciate the sector-based approach. The Labor Department will soon issue a wave of training grants for the health care sector, while the Energy Department is providing money for green jobs.

Congress is considering a job-creation bill this year and could overhaul the Workforce Investment Act next year, reforming a system that many say is focused on supplying workers rather than meeting industry demand. As the White House and Congress consider a job creation agenda, they should bear in mind the chief lesson of the sector-based approach: the best money is spent training for a job that's waiting to be filled.

This piece first appeared on Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity.

Maureen Conway directs the Equal Workforce Strategies Initiative for the Aspen Institute in the District of Columbia. Robert P. Giloth is a vice president at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, where he oversees the Center for Family Economic Success.