Does Worker Retraining Work?

Steven Greenhouse, labor reporter for The New York Times and author of The Big Squeeze: Tough Times for the American Worker, talks about whether job retraining works in a down economy.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. Skyrocketing unemployment numbers are causing some workers to consider switching careers. Retraining programs are booming. And the next economic stimulus package likely will include money for such programs. But even with new skills, finding a job will be difficult.

For every vacant job, there are at least three workers available. To find out if retraining actually will help struggling job seekers, we turn to New York Times labor and workplace reporter Steven Greenhouse. He's the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough times for the American Worker," and he joins us from our New York bureau. Welcome back to the program, Steven.

Mr. STEVEN GREENHOUSE (Labor and Workplace Reporter, New York Times; Author, "The Big Squeeze: Tough times for the American Worker"): Very nice to be here, Liane.

HANSEN: Every day, there's another announcement that a company is laying off, jobs are going every day. If there are fewer jobs, how will retraining help?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: A lot of studies, Liane, show that retraining has a mixed record. I think politicians love the idea of retraining because it's political appealing. It shows people that we're doing something about the problem of unemployment. But with unemployment soaring to 7.2 percent, the highest rate in 16 years, it's not clear whether retraining is actually going to help laid- off people find jobs.

HANSEN: Say someone who's been laid off re-trains, maybe for a completely different kind of job. Isn't it likely that if that person gets a job, it's much likely to be at a lower pay scale?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: When laid-off people find work, even after retraining, they're making, on average, 20 or 30 percent lower. And various studies have shown very different things depending, in part, on how good the training programs are, on, you know, the job markets in the various cities and states.

HANSEN: Mmm. Are there organizations that offer retraining programs that also offer guarantees about getting a job?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes and no. Many economic studies have shown that the best retraining programs are ones where, like, an employer will say, my company needs, you know, 36 welders. And the community college trains 36 people for these welding positions. And when they graduate, boom, they have a job. There's a pot of paychecks for them at the end of their retraining rainbow, so to speak. But it's not that frequently and - where there are the specific retraining programs that lead to specific jobs.

HANSEN: Is there a better option for workers who can't find a job in their field?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: I think, you know, when unemployment is rising, if you have the money, go retrain, go get better skills, go back to college. But unfortunately, a lot of people are living paycheck to paycheck, and they can't afford to take, you know, six months or a year retraining.

You know, my sense is when you're having problems finding a job, improve your skills. Maybe you won't get a better job six months from now, a year from now, but hopefully, when the economy improves in a year, in two years and four years, that retraining will pay off because you'll be able to get a better job than the one you left.

HANSEN: But in the same field. I mean, retraining doesn't necessarily mean a total career change.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: You're absolutely right, Liane. Retraining can mean going from being a nurse's aide in a hospital to become a full nurse, or from being a teacher's aide to become a full teacher. Or, you know, the many laid- off factory workers who see that the one field in the nation that's really growing is health care, and they're retraining for all sorts of health-care jobs - whether it's to be someone who checks blood pressure, whether it's to be a radiologist, or whether it's to be a nurse.

HANSEN: So there are industries that are looking for workers?

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Yes. When one looks at the areas in the economy where there is job growth - and they're really very few right now, you know, because, you know, we've seen layoffs in retail, layoffs in high-tech, layoffs in factories. But, you know, health care is a growing sector. There will be more money spent on education, so I think there will be greater demand for elementary school teachers, high school teachers. And for unskilled people, they can be hired as teacher's aides. I think there's growing demand for workers who will serve people in their 70s and 80s. You know, nursing homes need workers.

I mean, there are many different levels of skills that various retraining programs provide - from a three-month to six-month certificate to become a nursing home aide, two or three years to become a paralegal or, you know, a full degree to become a full engineer.

HANSEN: Steven Greenhouse is a labor and workplace reporter for the New York Times. He's also the author of "The Big Squeeze: Tough times for the American Worker." Thanks for joining us, Steven.

Mr. GREENHOUSE: Thanks, Liane.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.