Trained to Fail

Workers nationwide are getting the skills to join a new green economy. Problem is, it doesnu2019t exist. How Reaganu2019s job-training ghost haunts our response to unemployment.

By Yvonne Yen Liu Apr 13, 2010

April 13, 2010


Jason Smith needs a job. For two years, he’s been submitting applications and waiting by the phone for a callback. Sometimes, he gets a response, but the ratio of applicants to openings is at historic highs, so he hasn’t been hired. That wouldn’t make Smith much different from the 15 million Americans who are out of work, except that he was supposed to be among those leading us into a promising 21st century economy.


Last June, Smith graduated as a member of the inaugural class of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. He and his classmates were hopeful for their future—they’d get cutting edge jobs and be part of a movement for climate justice. Eight months later, many sit waiting for employment. A 26-year old Black man, Smith’s living with his parents, where he moved when he lost his job. He’s among 3.4 million workers who have been unemployed for more than a year.

A year ago, President Obama was among the nation’s loudest advocates for reversing the Great Recession by building a green economy. Congress included almost $4 billion in the Recovery Act for green job training. This funding is on top of the Department of Labor’s annual training allotment, which was a combined $7.4 billion in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Job training programs have sprung into action and workers have jumped at the chance for a new career.

But Washington stopped there. While Obama began this year vowing to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs”, most economists agree the jobs bill he signed into law last month is too little, too late. The Senate’s plan to roll out further job creation efforts appears stalled. They can’t even agree to keep unemployment insurance going for all those long-term jobless workers like Smith. So we are facing a jobless recovery, with some estimates predicting that job numbers won’t return to pre-recession levels until November 2014. The White House has said it doesn’t expect unemployment to drop meaningfully this year.

As a result of this neglect, the experience of Smith and his training classmates is not uncommon. There are no firm numbers on how many newly trained green workers are still jobless. But stories abound of programs that turn out workers with new, promising skills—in solar panel installation and weatherization, in places like Seattle and Chicago—and who nonetheless can’t find jobs.

The Oakland Green Jobs Corps was created in October 2008 as a demonstration of how investments in renewable energy can create opportunities to lift people of color out of poverty and onto promising career pathways. When the city won $250 million in a settlement from the state’s Enron lawsuit, advocates urged the money be used to fund green jobs, specifically a local training program. They argued the money should benefit communities of color, who were hurt the most by the unscrupulous practices of large energy corporations.

The Ella Baker Center surveyed 20 employers and found that many were in the process of expanding their businesses and that the major challenge they faced was finding trained people. In October 2008, about a dozen members of the Green Employer Council—a group of employers that helped shape the job training curriculum—committed to hiring a graduate of the Oakland Green Jobs Corp. But eight months later, when Smith and his colleagues donned green helmets and received diplomas in a graduation ceremony, the employers didn’t follow through on their promise. The ongoing recession curbed their business expansion; they were no longer hiring new workers.

The lesson ought to be clear: Job training alone doesn’t create jobs. But since 1982, the federal government has argued the contrary. That was the last economic downturn in which unemployment reached toward double digits. According to President Ronald Reagan, the cause wasn’t a shortage of jobs. He said he’d “looked in the Sunday paper at the help-wanted ads” and found “as many as 65 pages,” which “convinced us that there are jobs waiting and people not trained for those jobs.” To Reagan, the era’s 9.8 unemployment rate reflected a skills gap.

This moment marked a fundamental shift in how the federal government addressed rising jobless numbers, argues University of Oregon labor educator Gordon Lafer, in his 2002 book The Job Training Charade. Reagan enacted the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which altered the landscape of job training in three crucial ways.

First, the federal government moved from being an employer of last resort to a source of funding for privatized, short-term training. An earlier job training initiative, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA), provided both training and jobs. At its peak, CETA employed nearly three-quarters of a million adults and an additional one million youth for summer jobs.

“The only case in which training creates jobs is when businesses want to hire more people, but can’t find people with skills,” says Lafer. “This is very rarely true, especially during times of recession. Politically, training gets promoted the most when the economy is down, when it can’t create jobs.”

Reagan’s JTPA dissolved CETA’s public employment arm and redirected the money to private, for-profit job trainers. This was the second fundamental change. Previously, CETA programs operated at the city level and enabled community-based organizations to manage operations. JTPA instead empowered state governors with primary budget authority and setup private business councils, which planned the training programs at the local level.

Third, the Reagan program fundamentally changed the discourse around job training. Rather than being part of a one-two punch to get people back to work, it set up unemployment and poverty as personal failures. Only through filing individual skills deficits—especially in “soft skills,” such as discipline, punctuality, loyalty and “work ethic”—could the disproportionately Black and Latino poor and unemployed move into the middle class.

The impact on communities of color and women was grim. To begin with, funding was woefully inadequate, enough to serve only 2 percent of the eligible population. Because the federal government paid training providers for their services when they met certain outcomes, widespread “creaming” occurred by the program operators. People of color and women were skipped over as providers recruited white male workers to their programs, knowing that the latter population suffered the least in terms of barriers to employment. As a result, Black enrollment in job training fell by half in JTPA’s first year. Latino participation dropped even further. Two studies found that two-thirds of the on-the-job trainees were white men.

“Green job training is subject to the same critique as the JTPA,” says Lafer. “Green jobs are like a mantra, but nobody knows what they are or where they are.”

Wherever they are, there aren’t currently enough of them for the people that want them. Instead of continuing to pour money into training for green jobs that don’t exist, what the country needs is investments in large-scale job creation, one that will put people of color and women to work—in green jobs. Jason Smith perhaps says it best. “We need to get back to [being] a producing country, where we make things and then sell it to other countries,” Smith concludes. “So much money has been given to corporations, I just want a piece of it, I just want a job.”


Yvonne Liu is a senior research associate of the Applied Research Center