One of the most talked-about items in Obama’s new jobs proposal is also one of the most questionable: job training programs for minors and the unemployed. On the surface, this seems like a smart idea — providing American workers with the skills needed to navigate an economy that has changed dramatically over the past twenty years is certainly a noble goal. Yet the government has been involved with similar programs since the 1960s, and their track record has been abysmal. From the WSJ:
Between 1961 and 1980, the feds spent tens of billions on federal job-training and employment programs. To what effect? A 1979 Washington Post investigation concluded, “Incredibly, the government has kept no meaningful statistics on the effectiveness of these programs—making the past 15 years’ effort almost worthless in terms of learning what works.” CETA hirees were often assigned to do whatever benefited the government agency or nonprofit that put them on the payroll, with no concern for the trainees’ development. An Urban Institute study of the mid-1980s concluded that participation in CETA programs resulted in “significant earnings losses for young men of all races and no significant effects for young women.”After CETA became a laughingstock, Congress replaced it in 1982 with the Job Training Partnership Act. JTPA spent lavishly—to expand an Indiana circus museum, teach Washington taxi drivers to smile, provide foreign junkets for state and local politicians, and bankroll business relocations. According to the Labor Department’s inspector general, young trainees were twice as likely to rely on food stamps after JTPA involvement than before since the “training” often included instructions on applying for an array of government benefits.For years the Labor Department scorned the mandate in the 1982 legislation to speedily and thoroughly evaluate whether the programs actually benefitted trainees. Finally, in 1993, it released a study that showed participation in JTPA “actually reduced the earnings of male out-of-school youths.” Young males enrolled in JTPA programs had 10% lower earnings than a control group that never participated.
For an example of what goes on in these programs:
More recently, Mr. Obama’s 2009 stimulus package expanded federally funded summer jobs. And so young men and women used puppets to greet aquarium visitors in Boston. Teens in Washington, D.C.’s Green Summer Jobs Corps maintained “school-yard butterfly habitats.” And summer workers in Florida, the Orlando Sentinel reported, “practiced firm handshakes to ensure that employers quickly understand their serious intent to work.”
These results are embarrassing. With a fifty-year track record of failure, it may finally be time to accept that the government has no idea how to prepare people for the private sector workforce.Fortunately, there are still options for the unemployed. Many community colleges offer relatively cheap programs that teach real skills that will improve chances in the job market. Some are more expensive and time consuming than they have to be as they have been stretched into a two year associate degree program.Making vocational education cheaper, faster, better and more widely available will do more for the unemployed and the underemployed than any government funded handshaking classes can ever do. That’s where the investment and the attention need to go.Combine that with a voucher program so that the unemployed can make their own choices about what new skills to acquire, and we might have a worker training system helps people get good jobs at a reasonable cost.