According to government officials, about 14 million Americans are currently unemployed. One article asks if the secret to putting people back to work might be as simple as training.
That’s the premise of a recent piece from Bloomberg Businessweek published online. The article explains:
In surveys by Gallup and the McKinsey Global Institute, corporate CEOs and small business owners report difficulties finding workers with the right skills. Silicon Valley companies fight over software engineers; Union Health Service and the Harvard hospital system complain it’s hard to find nurses and technicians; manufacturers like Caterpillar and Westinghouse can’t hire enough welders and machinists to keep their state-of-the-art lathes running.
This is the “skills gap,” and as the jobless rate remains stubbornly high, it’s one of the few things policymakers from both parties think they can actually fix. Everyone from President Obama to Mitt Romney to researchers at McKinsey and Harvard’s School of Education suggest the same solution: training. Even if there are arguments about how it should be funded, training enjoys a measure of bipartisan support because, in theory at least, it helps citizens help themselves. A welder, say, with decades on the job learns to be a Web designer or a computer support technician. His brief interaction with the government leaves him more productive and turns him from a drain on revenue to a source of it. What’s not to like?
The question of training is one of the most common we receive in the productivity consulting business. Companies sometimes view workplace efficiency issues as “lack of training” and see personnel changes as ways to exchange “unskilled workers for skilled workers.” This logic would make sense—if people were as interchangeable as machine parts.
In fact, the article goes on to provide a surprising perspective from some experts. For example:
Yet despite decades of research on job training programs, there’s sharp disagreement over results — whether training actually makes it easier for those out of work to find a job or leads to higher pay. Most training is short-term, and courses vary widely in quality. James J. Heckman, a University of Chicago economics professor and Nobel laureate, has criticized training for being a waste of public money that would be better spent educating the young. Training, he writes in an e-mail, is a “total failure … Its return is ZERO.”
How could it be the case that re-training is completely worthless? Before we get to the scientific evidence, let’s review some of the problems with training that may not be obvious at first:
- Training usually places extreme emphasis on technical skills. It’s true that virtually all jobs require special techniques and specialized knowledge of technology. But the most productive work environments are filled with people who have positive and healthy social interactions.
- Training bypasses institutional memory. There might be a reason “we’ve always done it that way“, or that tradition could be entirely foolish. Either way, most training programs neither explain nor explore the “why” behind company practices.
- Training is not education. Most training courses are highly linear and designed to impart procedural knowledge about specific skills. Training is not a “classical liberal arts education”, where students are encouraged to be creative and explore new ways of thinking. This is only a problem because lateral problem solving is exactly what many companies need.
The article does explain some of the science behind the problem with training:
The most exhaustive training study to date was authored by three economists…what they found was that among poor workers who used training to gain a foothold at the low-end of the wage scale, there were gains. Employment rates were higher among the trained than the comparison group, and pay was better by a couple of thousand dollars a year. For displaced workers, however, the study found that “gains from participation are, at best, very modest.”
While training can be of some help to companies and job seekers, the real value is in adopting a new perspective. That’s a tremendous challenge for both employers and would-be employees. It requires putting aside the old models and being ready to embrace innovation and risk failure. New skills may help, but not as much as being truly open to new points of view.