Making Retraining Work

Most retraining programs don’t work.  Individuals who need retraining are not consulted.  Retraining programs often focus on “trendy” industries like healthcare or green energy.  Local businesses are not consulted.  And while you can get a good job in healthcare or green tech, they may not be the industries in your area.  A successful retraining program has to be tailored to the worker and to the local economy.  For example, a retraining program in Los Angeles partnered with businesses but not workers.  When they had their training session many people didn’t show up.  Teaching people is easy; successfully retraining them and matching them with a welcoming business is hard.

Hard but not impossible. California’s mental-health cooperative programs (mental health co-ops) show what can be done.  Mental health co-ops successfully retrain and place people with serious mental illnesses.  Even in the middle of the Great Recession they placed 89.3% of their participants.  At the same time, conventional retraining programs placed 37% of their participants.  Mental health co-ops succeed because they work with the employer and the employee.

They start by advertising.  They tout the tax breaks local businesses get if they hire “their people”.  They work with businesses to expand capacity and help them get a bigger footprint in the community. This relationship building is as important for the would-be trainee as it is for the business.  It means people can choose the co-op that partners with employers for whom they want work.  It also means local businesses are assured that the people coming out of the retraining program want to work for them.

This approach makes sense because the same set of skills qualifies you for any number of occupations.  When I tell O*Net I am interested in working with ideas, data, and dealing with business I am told I can be anything from paralegal to water resource specialist.  Going from paralegal to water resource specialist is hard because a job is not just about the skills you use; it’s how you do your job and who you do it with.  Before you get the chance to start in your new career, you need to know how to access the local labor market, what your employment options are, and what sort of temporary work might be good a stepping stone.  That’s on top of the training itself.

A co-op-type approach works because it helps employees identify appropriate local resources, what education leads to employment (who wants to go to school just for the certificate?), how to develop opportunities, and how to get health insurance and other benefits while you’re establishing yourself.  On top of the on-the-job training, off-the-job training, and mentorship.

Employers also need assistance.  It’s as hard for a law firm to employ a former water resource specialist as it is for the water resource specialist to become a paralegal.  The co-ops make it easier for employers to integrate, support and mentor employees.  They also help employers build partnerships with other agencies and the community.

This kind of retraining program is neither easy nor cheap.  It takes time, money and, most of all, patience.  However, in an age when the nature of work is shifting profoundly and quickly, this may be a model we should consider expanding.  We may, after all, be the ones who need retraining—sooner than we think.

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