Despite assurances from policymakers that retraining is the key to success, such programs have consistently failed to equip workers with the preparation they need to secure jobs.
When Travis Busch graduated from high school in Jefferson, Iowa, in 1999, he followed many of his classmates on the well-plotted and well-trod path to college. Busch took classes at Iowa Central Community College during the day and worked part-time at night on the floor of a local factory that made stock tanks for horse and cattle farms. But after a year and a half in college, he dropped out to work full time.
“I didn’t want to go to college in the first place,” he said. “I was already making money. I didn’t see why I needed it.”
Fast-forward to January 2017. The factory where Busch worked was sold to a company that moved its operations to Kentucky and laid off the workers in Iowa. Before he lost his job, Busch met with local workforce officials who presented him three options: apply for an apprenticeship, go back to college, or try his luck on the job market with only a high-school diploma.
“I had a long conversation with my wife and decided that I didn’t want just a job, but I wanted a career,” Busch said. “I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t have that feeling they are going to lay me off. I wanted job security.”
For Busch that job security would come from installing and repairing heating and air-conditioning systems. But on the day he went to sign up for the HVAC program at Des Moines Area Community College, the coordinator he was scheduled to meet with wasn’t there. Instead he bumped into the head of the tool and die program, Charlie Peffers, who took Busch on a tour of the college’s labs. “He showed me the machines and really sold the program,” Busch said.
What ultimately persuaded Busch to give the tool and die program a try were Peffers’s comments about the job outlook for his graduates, who make parts for a variety of industrial machines. Most second-year students in the program were already working part-time. Companies came to campus every other week to recruit students, offering full-time jobs that started around $40,000 a year. And some students graduated with multiple job offers.
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Busch, who began classes in the tool and die program this fall, is the type of worker that politicians love to trot out when they talk about how job retraining is the answer to putting Americans back to work. But in many ways, Busch is one of the lucky ones. A relatively small chunk of the Americans who missed the conventional on-ramp to higher education and a career out of high school are now getting a second chance at a well-paying job through retraining.
Worker retraining is a classic chicken-or-egg dilemma. Employers don’t want to expand or relocate without the availability of an already-skilled workforce. Workers who have been laid off through corporate downsizing or because their jobs were shipped to a foreign country don’t want to dedicate the time and effort needed to go through retraining without the pledge of a sure-fire job with the same or a better paycheck.