TALK to a displaced worker who has just finished a retraining program, and chances are you’re talking to someone who still doesn’t have a job.
40 of the wealthiest Americans pledge to give away at least half of their fortunes, about $600 billion. This, and more articles and multimedia about philanthropy.Lured by promises of seamless re-employment in glamorous careers, many of America’s 14.8 million unemployed have enrolled in expensive adult retraining programs, only to graduate with mountains of debt and credentials no employer cares about.
In some cases, these hapless workers are the victims of fly-by-night operations. But others have been through well-intentioned community college programs that simply did not have the resources or structure to devise curriculums that actually prepare students for jobs.
Enter Skills for America’s Future, an initiative started by the Obama administration and housed in the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit research organization in Washington.
The program, announced by the White House on Oct. 4, is an attempt to broaden and duplicate the most successful programs around the United States.
“The goal is to encourage community colleges to work in close partnership with employers, to design a curriculum of some kind where they actually want to hire the people coming out of these programs,” said Austan Goolsbee, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers.
The Aspen Institute has appointed a new director to head the program and is hiring more staff using $250,000 in seed money from a private foundation. The new program will build on previous efforts by the institute to identify the most successful public-private retraining partnerships around the country and figure out the best practices for other colleges interested in developing similar programs.
Internships, curriculum development and mentoring programs will be among the components that Skills for America’s Future will study and make recommendations on.
Indeed, there are shining examples of small, well-devised retraining programs around the United States that have strong records of placing low-income, at-risk workers in employment, in good economic times and bad.
One is Training Futures, which educates and grooms about 100 low-income people annually in the Virginia suburbs of Washington for administrative and medical office jobs.
It is run in partnership with the Northern Virginia Community College system, a local nonprofit called the Northern Virginia Family Service and employers throughout the area. Founded in 1996, the program has an 89 percent job placement rate within six months of graduation, said Bill Browning, the program’s liaison at the college.
High job placement rates at public-private partnerships like Training Futures — or a respected automotive technician program at Shoreline Community College in Washington State, or a medical training program at Austin Community College in Texas — seem to be the exception, rather than the rule in the retraining sphere. Many of these model programs are small, with intense one-on-one mentoring, and subsist through an uneven stream of private donations and taxpayer support.
The challenge for Skills for America’s Future will be to break down data from different schools and employers to figure out how to reproduce these unusual successes quickly and efficiently, given how many workers across the country are yearning for similar results.
The Aspen Institute has already been working with Training Futures to statistically analyze that program’s structure and enrollment for clues about what has made it effective.
For example, the institute is interested in the structure of the internship that occurs toward the end of the 25-week program. This internship process, and in particular the active role that Training Futures takes in screening and matching students to offices where they might be well suited, may be one replicable, vital element to more permanent job placement.
“It takes a lot of time to train someone who is not experienced,” said Ingrid Tomney, a practice administrator with Pediatric Cardiology Associates, a medical office in Fairfax, Va., that is a partner with Training Futures and recently hired one of its graduates after a successful internship. “Training Futures has been good about trying to tailor things to our practice and what our needs are, like giving us people who are comfortable speaking on the phone with patients and making calls.”
There is also interest in the softer skills that the program helps teach to troubled students, like self-confidence and an understanding of proper business attire. In addition to traditional courses like typing, filing and medical terminology, for example, Training Futures also provides a Toastmasters course to help students with public speaking, and each day of the program opens with a discussion of an inspirational quotation.
“It wasn’t just training you on your skills, but also training you to be a better person altogether and to look at life differently,” said Jae Om, 27, of Herndon, Va. A single mother who had her son while in high school, she had been in and out of work in recent years, and got a job at the Dulles Regional Chamber of Commerce after interning there through Training Futures. Before enrolling in Training Futures last spring, she had been unemployed for nearly two years.
The Skills for America’s Future program at the Aspen Institute will be paired with a federal advisory board, which will include officials from the Labor Department, Education Department and other federal departments and agencies that have a stake in retraining American workers.
Penny Pritzker, a Chicago business executive and Obama fund-raiser who sits on the President’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board, will be the chairwoman for the Skills for America’s Future board. Her family foundation, the Pritzker Traubert Family Foundation, donated the seed money for the project, and she said she was trying to shore up donations from other foundations interested in poverty, labor and related initiatives.
Ms. Pritzker said the board would also have representatives from the private sector, labor unions and other stakeholders. A number of large American companies, including Gap Inc., Accenture, the United Technologies Corporation and McDonald’s, have agreed to serve as partners to the program.
These companies were recruited in part because they have existing retraining programs, often with at-risk populations.
The Pacific Gas and Electric Company, for example, has already been working with community colleges in places like Fresno and Modesto, Calif., to help devise curriculums for jobs related to clean energy and skilled crafts. It has committed to provide $1.5 million in in-kind support for each of the next three years to community colleges, including equipment donations, curriculum setup and student field visits, according to Tamar Sarkissian, a company spokeswoman.