Most Job Training Programs Don’t Work. Here’s How To Do Better.

Americans can't find jobs, and employers can't find candidates. Here's the missing link.
06/23/2017 09:15 am ET
A welder who works for an oilfield service company in Andrews, Texas, on Jan. 20, 2016.
Spencer Platt via Getty Images
A welder who works for an oilfield service company in Andrews, Texas, on Jan. 20, 2016.

Everybody wants a job. And not just any job, but a job that provides stable income and fulfilling work. But there is a shadow looming over the youngest members of our workforce both here in the U.S. and globally. Getting a good job requires information to guide the search, the skills to do the work and the network to find it — and they often find themselves disconnected from all of those things.

Last week was dubbed “workforce week” by President Donald Trump’s administration. More than 73 million young people worldwide are unemployed, and three times as many are underemployed. Yet at the same time, 40 percent of employers say they can’t find candidates with the skills they need for even entry-level roles.

The problem isn’t a lack of programs or even resources. There are many programs out there seeking to bridge this gap and money from all sectors being allocated to this challenge. In the U.S. alone, spending on programs for those not attending four-year colleges (including government job initiatives, certification programs, community college and on-the-job training) is more than $300 billion per year.

So why does this disconnect between skills and jobs persist? Because most trainings and workforce programs don’t achieve what they set out to. The World Bank estimates that only 30 percent of youth employment programs are successful — and many of those have limited positive effect.

Few organizations track and report on how long their graduates stay in the jobs they obtain.

A 2015 McKinsey study of 150 employment programs across 25 countries, along with a survey of 14,000 employers, youth and education providers, identified two gaps in the field: the inability for programs to achieve sufficient scale to have a global impact and the challenges of proving a positive return on investment from training to employers. The solutions to these two challenges are intertwined. Programs that can prove their effectiveness can attract resources that in turn will allow them to grow and reach greater and greater numbers of participants.

I lead a nonprofit called Generation that recruits, trains and places unemployed young adults in jobs. We run programs across 15 professions and four sectors in five countries (India, Kenya, Mexico, Spain and the U.S.), 47 cities and 106 locations. In the two and a half years since we launched, we’ve learned that the hallmarks of an effective program are employer engagement, a practice-based curriculum, student support services and a commitment to measuring results post-program. 

To start, programs must confirm job vacancies with employers before the training even begins. Then, a practice-based curriculum offers repeated, intensive opportunities to hone the technical and behavioral skills that will allow graduates to operate at peak performance from day one on the job. Meanwhile, many employment program participants face challenges outside the workplace, ranging from child care needs to housing issues. Providing supports for students in the form of mentorship, stipends or other guidance ― both during training and as they enter new jobs ― can make the difference in their success. And last but not least, tracking results after the program means programs can prove the return on investment both to participants (personal and financial well-being) and to employers (productivity, quality, retention, speed to promotion) or other funders.

Being able to compare key measures, like cost per employed day, across programs, would support making smart investment decisions.

Historically, organizations have struggled to collect the data required to know whether a program really works, because intensive data tracking is expensive and time-consuming. All organizations know the cost of their workforce intervention per participant. Most organizations know their job placement rate. However, very few track and report on how long their graduates stay in the jobs they obtain. None of these metrics alone paints a full picture of whether a program works: cost doesn’t tell you if the training translates into employment, and job placement doesn’t tell you if those jobs become stable sources of income over time. With all three, however, you can understand how much bang for the buck a workforce program provides — for each dollar invested, how many employment days result.

Generation has adopted this measure that combines all three metrics. We call it “cost per employed day.” But there isn’t an easy way for those holding the purse strings — policymakers, private funders and employers — to evaluate programs without a central source of effectiveness data. Being able to compare key measures, like cost per employed day, across programs, would support making smart investment decisions.

None of this is easy. If it were, we wouldn’t still be talking about how to bridge the gap between the skills employers need and those that job seekers have. But there is an opportunity for policy makers, funders, practitioners and employers to get focused on what works. No single organization will solve the problem of unemployment alone. By holding ourselves and others accountable to clear measures of effectiveness and putting resources where we see results, together we can create a clear pathway for every young person who is eager to work.

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