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Research Briefs | October 14, 2020

Skill Training for Adults

Paul Osterman


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Since the late years of the Eisenhower administration, when alarms were first raised about the impact of what was then called “cybernation,” there have been cycles of interest in the role of training policy for addressing national challenges. During the Johnson administration’s War on Poverty, youth unemployment and juvenile delinquency motivated the creation of initiatives such as summer youth jobs and the Job Corps, as well as a great many others. During the Clinton years, concerns about lagging American competitiveness relative to Germany and Japan led to efforts to import elements of the German apprenticeship model as well as efforts to encourage firms to invest more in training their workforce.

If this paper had been written six months ago, it would have argued that trade shocks and disruption caused by robots and artificial intelligence have resulted in a renewed interest in public employment and training policy. Additionally, the persistence of a large low-wage labor market and unacceptable racial and ethnic disparities has pointed to the need for finding ways to help people move into better work. Today, the case is even more urgent with tens of millions unemployed due to COVID-19 and very likely facing the restructuring of industries ranging from retail to travel to manufacturing. People will need to not only obtain new skills but also find new work.

In thinking about these concerns, it would be a mistake to believe that skill training is the only answer. A broader agenda would include a wide range of economic and social welfare policies as well as efforts to strengthen employee voice. Nevertheless, training is important because many low-wage workers lack the skills needed to move into better jobs; middle-aged workers who are displaced will need assistance finding new work using new skills; and creative skill training programs can work with firms to help them improve their performance and upgrade their employment practices. When we turn to our discussion of public policy, we identify two channels through which training can play an essential role: improving access to good jobs and helping to transform low-quality jobs into better-quality jobs.

With a focus on adult training, we begin by presenting the findings from a new original survey describing how working adults obtain their job skills. The results of this survey raise important questions about equity and access. To address these challenges, we turn to a discussion of public training policy.

To preview the findings, we show that about half of adults received training from their employers in the 12 months prior to the survey, and about 20 percent undertook some form of training on their own during the same period. Whether these rates are satisfactory is an open question, but what is not acceptable is that there are large racial, ethnic, and educational differentials in access to both forms of training. This sets the stage for our discussion of public policy. We describe the major skill provision policies and institutions and emphasize a crucial observation: In many respects, we have a good understanding of what works at the level of specific programs—modern models of job training programs and community colleges—and the hard challenge is diffusing best practice at scale. Achieving scale is in part a question of resources, but at a deeper level requires a regional social compact and a significant commitment, not just lip service, among the key actors.

That said, we argue there are some gaps in our understanding and opportunities for innovation, which we also address. Finally, we conclude with the observation that, for all the criticism regarding the limited scope of the U.S. job training system, it does have positive features, namely the multiple venues of training that are available and the flexible access to those venues. These features distinguish the American system from more rigid national models and are a source of strength.