Do Federal Job Training Programs Work?

The U.S. unemployment rate has been at or above nine percent for 20 of the past 25 months, yet many employers say they can't find qualified workers. Workplace Magazine reports the top five industries with the largest worker shortages are: defense and aerospace, energy and utilities, manufacturing, technology, and transportation. Must be time for another government job training program!

Apparently the 47 different federal employment and training programs already in place are falling short in their mission to prepare unemployed Americans for millions of job openings.

How do taxpayers and unemployed workers benefit from 47 different job training programs at an annual cost of $18 billion per year? We don't really know. That's because the federal government is better at spending your money than taking responsibility for its actions. Many of the current jobs programs have been running since the 1960s, yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) – an oxymoron if ever there was one – states: "Little is known about the effectiveness of employment and training programs we identified."

In 1994, the Labor Department did commission a study of jobs programs, at a cost to taxpayers of $25 million! The study followed 20,000 workers who used government-training services and compared them with workers who used other means to find work. The finding: "For most workers the federal programs held no significant benefits." For young people: "Government training programs for the disadvantaged are almost uniformly negative," according to labor experts James Heckman and Jeffrey Smith.

The programs are not total failures. There always seems to be at least one example of somebody who was laid off, went through a training program, and then found a new job at a local government-subsidized windmill factory. This is the same person who gets invited to sit with the First Lady during the President's State of the Union speech. Job-training programs better serve politicians than the unemployed. James Laffer, left-of-center economist and author of The Job Training Charade, is quoted by the Cato Institute as saying such programs are little more than "political symbolism."

Over the decades we've spent hundreds of billions of dollars on an alphabet stew of programs that don't work, duplicate the work of others, or produce results that are so marginal it is impossible to determine if they are successful. Most levelheaded people would call for an end to such wasteful spending, but we continue to insist that our politicians do something. So they promptly create another job training program to prove they indeed are doing something. Then … we re-elect them.

Meanwhile, there are 13 million unemployed workers in the U.S. and millions of job openings still unfulfilled. According to a study from Manpower last year, more than half of employers say they can't find the qualified workers they need. Really? Either the government job-training managers are woefully inadequate or behind the times, or such job training programs simply do not work.

Government programs do not die or fade away. They grow, they get new names, and they continue to grow. In his most recent State of the Union speech, President Obama said he'd like to simplify the government's job training programs into one program, with one website. He then proposed a new federal initiative to team up with community colleges and employers that would serve two million unemployed workers. Hmmm.

Do we really need the federal government to get in the middle of a community college partnership with a local business for a job training initiative? Considering the federal government's record, I would say not. Maybe it's time to cut our losses, see what the Manpowers and Monster.coms of the world can do to help train and place workers. At least they have an incentive to produce results.