Many attempts to use training to cushion the blow of job losses have been made in the past, but most have had little success. As early as 1962, a program known as Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) was put in place to help workers who lost their jobs as a result of increased imports to the U.S. or shifts in U.S. production to other countries. But TAA has had to make do with minimal budgets most years, and has not had a great impact. During the 1990s, the debate over the North American Free Trade Agreement (which critics like H. Ross Perot said would create a “giant sucking sound” of jobs headed to Mexico) included calls by labor advocates for better worker retraining efforts. But again, little progress was made.
The U.S. Department of Labor’s track record isn’t any better. The agency funnels money to local workforce boards, but they are rarely equipped to offer retraining, and critics charge that they are overly bureaucratic. “Federal agencies spend 90 percent of their energy on protecting their turf and only about 10 percent of their energy on doing the job they’re supposed to do,” says Kenneth Ragsdell, an engineering professor and an expert on industrial training at Missouri University of Science and Technology. Ragsdell, who has been a labor consultant for GM, IBM, Xerox, and Deere, says the local workforce boards lack contact with real employers and therefore don’t know what worker skills are most needed.
Workforce boards frequently refer displaced workers to other programs, such as privately run vocational schools or occupational training centers. However, too many of these institutions offer degrees or certificates that are not recognized by employers, leaving workers even more confused about what to do. “If I want retraining, why should I have to go to a third party?” says Craig Follins, executive vice president of Tri-C’s workforce and economic development division. “There needs to be a way of delivering the services quicker.”
Tri-C, which serves more than 18,000 students a year, is considered particularly effective because it has committees of employers that help guide the curriculum for each retraining program, ensuring that the classes are customized to provide skill sets that companies are actually looking for. “We [community colleges] are going to be the retraining providers for most of the folks who have been misplaced,” Follins says. “We’re nimble. We’re malleable.” In addition, skilled executives from the private sector are recruited to teach courses. Ben Venue’s Mills teaches at Tri-C part time, but John Gajewski, a former executive at General Electric, Emerson Electric, and Berkshire Hathaway, came out of retirement to run Tri-C’s training for advanced manufacturing, biosciences, engineering, and skilled trades.
Gajewski says workers who have been displaced need to gain more than just math or technical skills. “The technical content is fairly straightforward — it’s the people skills and the employability skills that take a little bit of creativity, because [those skills] are not scientific,” he says. Many workers coming out of an older industrial setting, he notes, don’t understand the importance of teamwork and communications in newer, more flexible manufacturing systems, so his instructors teach groups of workers how to interact together on a project.
Another piece that’s missing from many retraining programs, Gajewski says, is counseling to help the displaced deal with the raw emotions caused by what has happened to them. “What we need to work through with them is any kind of resentment or anxiety they have in making a career change,” he explains. “A laid-off worker has had some damage done to their psyche and their self-esteem. We need to do some work on that.”