Along with four-year and community college education, short-term job training is a critical component of a comprehensive plan to grow the economy. Gov. Paul LePage’s plan to consolidate the oversight of training funds while widening the regional investment of those funds is a smart strategy.
Job-specific training often is the best approach for older workers, whose family responsibilities and ties to a home limit their options to pursue a traditional college education. Such training also is a quick way to get displaced workers — those who have worked in an industry where jobs are shrinking — back to work.
Job training has evolved over the last 50 years and moved closer to a partnership between government and business. Modern conservatives assail the government-created jobs of the New Deal era, but history has judged that response to the 25 percent unemployment rates of the 1930s as a success. But those conservatives are correct in asserting that such extreme measures are not what’s called for when national unemployment rates hover at 8 percent.
In 1973, the federal government created the CETA, or Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a program whose roots lay in the 1930s Works Progress Administration. CETA provided full-time employment of a year or two in public agencies and nonprofit organizations for low-income and long-term unemployed people. The concept was to provide those people with skills they could then market themselves for permanent jobs.
CETA remained the nation’s primary job training program for nine years, but by the time President Reagan was elected, it was derided as a “make work” program, creating jobs that provided little to no public benefit.
CETA was replaced by the Jobs Training Partnership Act of 1982. It included an on-the-job training component which reimbursed a private employer half of a worker’s wages while he or she learned the job. The act also directed funds for classroom and vocational training. To be eligible, participants had to be economically disadvantaged.
That program was replaced during the Clinton administration by the Workforce Investment Act, a product of its times, when the economy was booming and the federal government made changes to programs like Aid to Families with Dependent Children.
The new job training approach also aimed to further involve the private sector and ensure accountability, creating local Workforce Investment Boards. Gov. LePage hopes to further tweak this component to help match worker skills to employer needs.
Currently, the state has four boards overseeing job training funds. The governor wants to double that to eight board, aligning their domains with the state’s regional chambers of commerce. Such an approach is sensible. Maine is a geographically large place, and local economies vary widely. Developing the skills needed for existing jobs managing restaurants and hotels in Bar Harbor, repairing skidders in Skowhegan, building steel-hulled boats in Boothbay and high-end homes in York County should be managed in those regions.
At the same time, Gov. LePage is proposing to have just one statewide body oversee the funding, believing too much money is going to administration of standing job training programs. Maintaining staffs that oversee training programs may leave little money for actual training. But as is the case with colleges, the training cannot always be delivered well on an ad hoc basis.
Publicly funded job training should get same attention that higher education gets. It has the potential to sustain an important tier of the economy and provide a ladder out of low-wage jobs.