Do job retraining programs work?

Whenever we talk about a new economy or creating new high-tech jobs, we tend to focus on job retraining programs. Often funded by the government, these programs take people laid off from shrinking industries — say, auto workers — and retrain them for new careers, often in computer or technology-related fields.

It seems like a good idea. The problem is, no one’s sure if these job retraining programs actually work. No one knows if the people trained at them actually find new careers.

The New York Times ran a story yesterday that looked at the failures of job retraining programs. This is a serious issue, especially considering that Pres. Barack Obama’s stimulus plan sends $1.4 billion more toward these programs.

A study by the Labor Department, cited in the New York Times story, says that the biggest government-sponsored job retraining programs brought either no or little benefit to laid-off workers. The study showed little difference in salaries and the chance to be hired for new jobs between those who had taken retraining and those who had not.

Yes, that is pretty depressing. Imagine all the people who eagerly sign up for these retraining sessions only to discover that they’re little or no help when they’re trying to find a new job. It’s discouraging because we’re supposed to be proactive when we’re fired or laid off. We’re supposed to do everything in our power to find a new job.

And then we discover, unfortunately, that there is actually very little we can do to increase our chances when the economy is this bad. The sad truth is, when the economy tanks, the best way to land a new job is by knowing someone or getting lucky. We don’t like to believe this, but I challenge anyone to tell me that it’s not true.