Evidence on Sector-Focused Job Training

(No, that’s not a pun on the name of this blog, but it is a little funny.)

MDRC is a nonprofit that does research on the implementation of behavioral design in various disciplines. My colleagues and I were lucky enough to attend a seminar of theirs over the summer, and I consider their work to be among the best and most accessible in the behavioral science world. Today I’m writing about a podcast of theirs, in which they describe positive results from tailored and sector-focused job training. You can, and should, listen to the podcast (which is only seven minutes long) at this link.

To summarize the findings, MDRC has been analyzing a program called WorkAdvance, which is “a sector-based, skill-building model, launched in 2011 as a national Social Innovation Fund project sponsored by the Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City and the Center for Economic Opportunity. WorkAdvance providers work closely with employers in New York, Tulsa, and northeastern Ohio to help job seekers prepare for and enter quality jobs as well as succeed and advance in the labor market.”

It should come as little surprise to you that actually focusing the training on what the specific populations have needed has improved their results significantly. WorkAdvance prepares its clients for work in burgeoning industries, including IT, medical billing, and long-haul trucking (I’m, uh, not so sure about the long-term prospects of that one, but they know more than I do). The key, though, is that the training is designed alongside the employers, to provide the clients with the very specific skills they are lacking from most applicants.

The results were clear. To paraphrase the podcast, participants were much likelier to attain credentials and employment in their desired field, and two years out were earning 14% more than they otherwise would have. That may not seem like much, but is a considerable difference, especially for clients with less experience or expertise. To wit, the program even increased earnings for long-term unemployed, who are always a particular challenge in training and development.

Let me take a step back here and broaden the potential impact of this study. It seems obvious to posit that workforce development and other sorts of adult education need to be closely tied to employers or other goals that students might have, but a great deal of behavioral science is about common sense best practices that aren’t being done, after all. Job training programs are a dime a dozen, mostly because it’s easier to create a one-size-fits-all model. But without close working relationships with employers or schools (depending on what type of goals that students have), training runs the risk of becoming obsolete or irrelevant very quickly.

You can absolutely learn medical billing, or coding, or English just about anywhere and for not that much money (or even for free). But an employer who knows for sure that you’ve learned exactly the skills they require is much more keen to hire someone, all else being equal.

In my own field, plenty of my colleagues have taught “Business English” to interested parties. And there is absolutely a market for it. But most of the courses advertised are generic and outdated. I’m not sure how many textbooks I’ve seen that really want to make sure students know about fax machines, but it’s more than it should be. Imagine if more employers with international employees were involved in developing their own curricula with trainers and instructors, so that they knew exactly what their new workers had learned? Imagine how many fewer communication issues there might be.

Anyway, I encourage you to check out the podcast and look for other such evidence. The fact is, one-size-fits-all is really only good for baseball caps.