The Challenges of Adult Training

Kudos to the Lansing State Journal and Detroit News for in depth articles on the performance of Michigan’s adult training system. ( You can find the Journal’s article here and the News’ lead article here.) The News focused on the No Worker Left Behind program and its, at best, mixed results. While the Journal takes a more comprehensive look at the whole system from adult ed provided by k-12 districts through post secondary training through the Michigan Works! agencies and community colleges. The bottom line is that the system leaves lots of adults without the skills they need for the labor market of today and tomorrow.

For many training is the answer to the challenges raised in my last two posts: non college educated men falling behind and the gap between the skills needed for today’s factory jobs and the skills of applicants for those jobs. Both are consequences of the new reality that more and more of the work that required primarily muscle is now either done overseas or by machines. But the country  – not just Michigan – does not have a very good record of taking people who have done lower skilled jobs and preparing them at scale for jobs that require higher skills. And an even worse track record with those who have been chronically unemployed, no matter how strong the economy.

It is unrealistic to ask training institutions to solve all the challenges of the economy. Training will not lead to jobs that don’t exist. So when the macro economy is weak holding training institutions accountable for placements is not fair. What is fair is holding them accountable for whether their students have gained the skills needed to get jobs – particularly decent paying jobs – when the economy starts to grow again. Nor can training institutions overcome the resistance of many to get training. Whether its not accepting the need to learn new skills, not wanting to participate in training or needing work now so one doesn’t have the time to get new skills there are all sorts of reasons adults don’t sign up for training.

But for those who do enroll for addition training, the system needs to do better. As we have written before, far too many participants don’t get the skills they need. Far too many end up in remedial programming and never make it to classes where they can learn new occupational skills. And many who do make it to occupational training, don’t get the skills/credentials needed to get employed in the occupation.

As the Detroit News pointed out the problem is particularly acute for many private adult training institutions.  The privates are far more expensive for taxpayers and students with a worse track record of student success compared to community colleges.  Quite troubling!

Figuring out how to get the system to get better student outcomes should be a priority. It is about more than just adequate funding for training. We need to admit that we don’t really know how to get better outcomes at scale and encourage lots of experimentation combined with clear outcome standards.

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