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In spite of public consensus that education and training lead to economic advancement, recent federal policies have made it harder for low-income Americans to get the education and training they need to succeed in today’s economy.
A number of recent federal policies, like the 1996 law that established the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) welfare program, have in different ways adopted a “work first” approach that encourages or requires low-income adults to find employment immediately, rather than allowing them first to develop skills that might lead to better jobs with family-sustaining wages and benefits, and opportunities for steady work and advancement.
This policy shift away from skills training and toward work first strategies has come about, in part, from a misconception that “training does not work.”
Many policymakers have heard that government-sponsored research—such as the National Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) Study, the Greater Avenues to Independence (GAIN) Evaluation and the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS)—shows that low-income adults who receive training do no better in the job market than people who do not receive such services, or who receive only the less expensive job search assistance typical of many work first strategies.
In fact, a more comprehensive look at the existing research reveals the documented effectiveness of skills training. A growing number of studies have shown that:
- Skills training can increase earnings. Recent studies of training programs serving low-income adults have documented annual earnings impacts of anywhere from 10 percent to 156 percent beyond what similar job seekers had been able to gain without training or with job search services only. Many of these increases were the result of access to jobs with higher hourly wages, as well as increases in the number of work hours available to them.
- Skills training can improve access to employer-paid benefits. Several studies have shown that low-income participants in skills training stand a better chance of getting jobs with benefits (e.g., employer-provided healthcare, retirement plans and paid leave) than do non-participants, or than they themselves were able to access prior to training.
- Skills training can increase steady work. According to several studies, training graduates worked more regularly than they had prior to receiving training, or more consistently than individuals who did not receive training.
In addition, a closer reading of the often-referenced major evaluations reveals they also documented effective outcomes for training, but those results have been overlooked.
Far from dismissing training, the often-cited evaluations identified numerous programs in which preemployment training significantly improved employment outcomes for low-income adults. Unfortunately, such results have often been missed or misinterpreted because:
- Occupational training was not distinguished from other types of education. The evaluations did not distinguish between occupational training and other types of education (e.g., literacy or GED classes) that were not designed to achieve immediate employment outcomes. As a result, different approaches were lumped together under the same “education-focused” category, thereby obscuring the employment emphases and gains attributable to occupational training strategies.
- The most successful programs actually made substantial use of training, but that fact was overshadowed by their additional emphasis on employment. The most successful evaluated welfare- to-work strategies used occupational training as one of a “mix” of services available to welfare recipients. But because such mixed strategies also emphasized employment, some work first proponents interpreted their success as an argument against training-based approaches—even though training was a key element to the “mixed” strategies’ success.
- The evaluations did not focus on individual “effective practices.” These evaluations sometimes measured the average impact of a number of individual training programs that were likely quite different in the particular strategies they used (e.g., curricula, connection to employers and targeted industries) to move people into local jobs. As a result, although there were some dramatically different outcomes across the surveyed programs, these evaluations were not set up to identify what specific practices qualitatively distinguished the effective training programs from the ineffective ones. Furthermore, good outcomes were averaged with poor outcomes, thereby producing a conclusion of negligible impact.
To create more effective welfare and workforce development policies, policymakers should develop a broader base of information about what works in helping low-income Americans succeed in today’s job market.
Policymakers are right to inquire about what works as they develop policies to help low-income Americans become economically self-sufficient. To that end, beyond continuing to make use of government-sponsored national evaluations as one means to assess policy options, they should:
- Acknowledge other outcome studies. Many smaller-scale evaluations have yielded impressive findings on earnings gains, benefit receipt and employment stability.
- Sponsor new national evaluations that specifically focus on occupational skills training. National evaluations should isolate the effects of skills training, distinguish between education and training, and identify practice issues that influence program success.
- Consult or sponsor new “effective practice” studies that focus on individual model programs. The lessons learned from this literature move beyond identifying what programs work, to revealing why they work and how they might be replicated.
- Talk to local experts from the field. Local employers, training providers and public officials can share important perspectives about what works in particular local areas to help workers and businesses meet their skills needs.