THE federal government spends $20 billion on job-training programs each year, but do the people enrolled in these programs actually find jobs? That was the question put to the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee recently under the new chairmanship of Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas. The answer? Nobody knows.
The effectiveness of federal job-training programs has long been debatable. The problem, it turns out, is that no one has been debating. ''We have added training program upon training program, without ever taking the time to look back and see whether what we've done actually works,'' Senator Kassebaum said.
One-half of the 163 federal job-training programs don't track whether participants find work, according to the General Accounting Office (GAO). The GAO reported that it had found extensive inefficiency, waste, and duplication. It recommended major reforms and consolidations.
But how? President Clinton, for one, has proposed consolidating more than 50 federal job-training programs into a system of vouchers, or ''skill grants.'' About 400,000 unemployed and low-income people would be given annual grants of up to $2,600 for two years for retraining in private programs of their choosing.
The bulk of the funds for the voucher system would come from consolidating job-training programs, according to Labor Secretary Robert Reich. But, because of the scope of the project, Mr. Clinton would also seek additional funds.
If the voucher system offers workers a better chance for broader learning -- programs that focus on math, science, and verbal skills -- then it is worth considering. But before committing more money for job training, the government must have a better understanding of the programs' success rates.
According to Robert Sorensen, head of the Center on Education and Work at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, many technical colleges use wage-reporting records filed by employers on a quarterly basis to check on former students. Federal programs also should use this method, Professor Sorensen argues.
That way, they would learn about program participants such as one woman who testified at the recent hearing. She said she had completed eight job-training programs but couldn't find a job afterward. These are the stories that should be heard.