Monday, August 18, 2014


In journalism, “burying the lede” refers to putting the most interesting part of a story so deep within it that casual readers may miss it.  For example, the New Yorker had a piece last week on Ferguson, in which it mentioned in passing that the law that allows local police to take inexpensive possession of old military weaponry requires them to use it within a calendar year.  To me, that was both shocking and clarifying, but it was in the middle of a paragraph in the middle of the story.  

The New York Times did something similar yesterday in a story on WIA, or the Workforce Investment Act.

WIA was intended to help workers in declining industries get retrained for emerging jobs, or for jobs in growing sectors of the economy.  It targeted workers who had been laid off, and required educators to get credentials into their hands quickly.  The idea was to help adults who had been displaced by creative destruction to get back in the game.  It had bipartisan support, probably because it was ideologically compatible with both sides.  Conservatives could see it as encouraging work and individual responsibility, and as replacing welfare with wages.  Liberals could see it as helping the poor, including the newly poor, and shoring up aggregate demand.  And in the best cases, both were right.

Of course, reality isn’t always so pretty.  The Times story focuses on students who went with for-profit providers, couldn’t get jobs, and wound up deeper in debt and in worse shape than when they started.  Some for-profit providers apparently failed far more often than they succeeded, leaving most of their students worse off.  But the headline doesn’t focus on for-profit providers; it focuses on WIA itself, as if that were the same thing.

That wasn’t the only issue, though.

WIA was supposed to accomplish two largely contradictory things.  It was supposed to get people retrained quickly, and it was supposed to help them get as close to, if not beyond, their previous earning power as possible.  The problem is that most of the jobs that can be trained for in a year or less don’t pay terribly well.  Higher salaried positions tend to require many more years of education.  And that’s before counting remediation, which many displaced adult workers need before they can even do a year-long certificate.

On many campuses, we’ve recognized that reality by moving to a “stackable” model, in which we assume that students will move up the credential and salary scales in a series of steps.  A student might spend a semester getting a CNA credential, and go work at that for a while.  Come back for the LPN, then work at that for a while.  Then come back for the RN.  It wreaks havoc on our “performance” numbers, but it makes sense for many of our students.  It may take some time to move up the wage scale, but in the meantime, people gotta eat.  The thirty-year-old single parent is unlikely to regard four years of continuous full-time study as realistic.  

In most cases, though, WIA funding only lasts for one year.  Very few one-year credentials lead to high salaries.  And they require continuous enrollment, making the stop-out/stackable model inapplicable.  In other words, the program is designed to defeat its own purpose.  This often happens when nobody in the field is consulted.  

So now we get stories about disappointing outcomes involving students who went to expensive for-profits and couldn’t get jobs that pay well enough to pay off the loans.  The students aren’t at fault; they did what the program told them to do.  But I’m concerned that people will draw the wrong moral.  They’ll decide that retraining is futile, rather than that the program needs to do it differently.

If you want to get dislocated adults back into the labor market, you need to build schedules and systems that reflect reality.  That means working with community colleges and other non-profits, building schedules that work for parents, and recognizing the fact that many adults need to earn while they learn.

(Of course, one could also make the point that job placement is also a function of the job market.  Relying on training while allowing massive polarization of wealth is working at cross-purposes.  But that’s a larger issue.)

So no, the issue with WIA isn’t that training doesn’t work.  It’s that training needs to be designed to reflect the realities on the ground.  And headlines should reflect the stories they tell.