August 24, 2005

August 24, 2005 | Commentary on Jobs, Jobs and Labor Policy

Making Job Training Work is a Tough Job

Those who have followed the "progress" of federal job training programs will not be surprised to learn that, as Congress considers whether to re-authorize the Workforce Investment Act, debate is focusing on the administrative structure of WIA's various programs.

That's a mistake. We've tinkered around the edges of these programs for decades, but we've never enacted effective reforms. And it could be that this is because there are no reforms that will make federal job training better.

You have to hand it to Congress for trying, though.

The Manpower Development and Training Act (MDTA) sought to fix the mistakes of New Deal-era programs, such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Economic Opportunity Act of 1964 brought Job Corps and other measures designed to improve on the MDTA. In 1973, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) superseded all MDTA programs. In 1982, the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) changed the structure of CETA to make it more flexible. By 1998, the need for another administrative fix again had appeared, and Congress responded with the WIA.

Unfortunately, none of the fixes and almost none of the programs have done anything to significantly improve the lives of American workers. That's because job training works best when individuals pursue their own interests and when employers tailor their own training programs to the needs of their companies. Employers say they rarely reject applicants because of shortcomings in their vocational training but regularly turn them away because they lack basic reading, writing or math knowledge or "employability skills," such as reliable attendance and punctuality.

The data on job-training programs is famously unreliable. Much of the research is fatally flawed by improper comparisons or incomplete information. But even the studies that have been done show that federal job-training programs add only a few hundred dollars per year or less to the paychecks of the workers who participate. That sounds good only to those who don't realize that the per-participant cost of training through WIA programs can reach $5,000 per participant per year. Job Corps, also up for re-authorization under WIA, can top $21,000 per year.

In recent years, Congress has enacted various "reforms" designed to increase the flexibility of these programs on the theory that local people know the most about local needs. The WIA made two notable "improvements" over the JTPA -- it allowed the use of vouchers to create competition among employment and training service providers; and they created one-stop-shops where applicants can find job training, counseling and other services, including some not administered by the Labor Department. There is no research to show that WIA programs have had any impact. Participants receive the same job search assistance, classroom training, on-the-job training and other services as they did under JTPA.

WIA also required states and local governments to collect performance data to demonstrate whether their approaches worked. By collecting this data, Congress hoped the Labor Department would hold the states responsible for their use of WIA funds -- those that failed to meet expectations would lose funding, and those that exceeded them would receive more. To this end, in 1998, Congress required a full report from the Labor Department on WIA's three block grant programs -- WIA Dislocated Workers, WIA Adults and WIA Youth -- by September 2005.

Work on this report has not begun. However, another study, by the Government Accountability Office, revealed that the job training apparatus is up to many of its most infamous tricks. For instance, in 2003, the local workforce boards set up to administer WIA programs received $2.4 billion for adult and dislocated workers. The GAO found that only $929 million of that -- about 40 percent -- went to training workers. The rest went to administrative activities and other programs. Those activities and other programs did not include tracking the progress of participants in the various programs. The GAO says that 416,000 people received training that year, but it admits this is only a guess. Some workers may have been counted twice if they were enrolled in more than one program, participant tracking is "incomplete and unverified," and "little is known on a national level about the outcomes of those being trained."

The Bush administration has proposed further reforms -- for instance, it seeks to consolidate the adult training and displaced-worker programs into a unified effort for adult workers. But the administration signed off on more than $5 billion in spending on WIA programs next year, despite having no evidence these programs help anyone.

It's time to think beyond tinkering with the administration or structure of these programs. We need to take an honest look at them -- one bolstered by the research the Labor Department is required by law to provide. And that research -- if competently and truthfully done -- will lead, I believe, to one conclusion: that the federal role in job training should be eliminated. If states want to keep going, let them. But the feds have tried, and failed, enough.

David Muhlhausen is a senior research analyst in the Center for Data Analysis at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

David B. Muhlhausen, Ph.D. Research Fellow in Empirical Policy Analysis
Center for Data Analysis

Distributed nationally on the Knight-Ridder Tribune wire