Job training: Can it work in a weak economy?

Job training can offer a modest boost to income, on average, two studies show. But job training does not guarantee a job, especially in a weak economy.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File
In this March 9 photo, Damashata Washington looks for work at Work 2 Future, a federally funded job training center in San Jose, Calif. Job training can help people in a growing economy; in a weak economy, the benefits are far less sure.

As children head back to school, unemployed adults are signing up for job training courses to boost their skills and, they hope, land a job.

It's not easy, especially in a weak economy with anemic job growth. Government job training programs appear to offer only modest improvements in income, on average, even when the economy is strong.

Still, motivated students can learn new skills that can move them into better-paying jobs once the economy starts moving again, studies show.

The Obama administration has poured just under $4 billion from the federal stimulus into various job-training and summer youth programs. It has tried targeting funds to sectors of the economy that will grow even in a recession. Some $750 million of the stimulus is going to job training programs in energy efficiency, renewable energy, and healthcare.

States are busy announcing training programs funded with federal money or, sometimes, with their own state funds.

Women seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of such efforts. In 10 of 12 states with programs under the federal Workforce Investment Act, women with training out-earned their untrained counterparts by anywhere from $208 to $1,426 per quarter, according to a 2008 study. In six of the 12 states, men with training consistently earned more than their untrained counterparts, with statistically significant increases ranging from $359 to $1,211 per quarter.

Four years after participating in Job Corps, one of the nation's oldest and most intensive training programs, young adults earned an average $1,150 more per year, according to a 2001 study for the Labor Department. Job Corps is one of the federal government's most expensive training programs, at $14,000 per student. But the impact of reduced crime and an expected $27,000 in increased earnings over a lifetime made the program worthwhile, the study concluded.

These studies covered periods when the economy was growing robustly and jobs were plentiful. The impact of training in a weak economy is unlikely to be so positive, since so many people are scrambling to land a job.

Here are links to some federal initiatives:

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