Batch/cohort versus continuous training: A problem with no solution

Job training programs, education programs, and related programs can work in two basic modes: batch/cohort (we’ll call it “batch” for this purpose) and continuous. Batch training happens the way most conventional schools function: the academic year starts at a particular time—usually in September—and if you don’t show up by September 5, you have to wait until the next break in the academic calendar (which is usually around January). No matter how bad you want to start school, you have to wait until the next time you’re allowed to start.

The alternative is a continuous program, in which a given participant starts whenever she’s ready to start. Two people might start in September, five in October, another in November, and three in December. The person who starts in November probably can’t work or learn effectively with the two who start in September, however, because the two who start in September are too far ahead of the one who starts in November.

Neither of these approaches is necessarily right, and two federal programs illustrate the difference: YouthBuild versus Training to Work 2-Adult Reentry, both of which are conveniently funded by the Department of Labor.*

YouthBuild wants batch processing: usually one class starts every year, and training takes about nine months to complete. Training to Work 2, like many prisoner reentry and Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, wants continuous training: if an ex-offender is released in October, it’s important for reintegration purposes to start that person in October.

Batch processing is hard because people who think they want to participate in October lose interest by the time January rolls around. Continuous processing is hard because people tend not to have the sense of solidarity that comes with working in concert with others towards a specific goal.

One problem with many Workforce Investment Act (WIA) programs, going back to WIA’s inception in the mid-80s, is that they’re drop-in, drop-out programs; no one develops a sense of team. Following intake and assessment at a WIA American Jobs Center (AJC), the client is usually referred to to a vocational training vendor. The training usually is starts immediately but may not be continuous, and the trainee may not be part of a training batch.

It may seem to the trainee that they’re actually not building towards anything concrete, as she lacks a cohort to share training outcomes with. Cohort issues are powerful: Even with semesters at a university, for example, many people still find the university experience alienating, especially coming from relatively small high school communities. To some extent living in dorms provides community; so can sports, or the Greek system (despite the problems with the Greek system).

The military puts every recruit through basic training in a batch, in large part to build some sense of team identity or “unit cohesion,” as this often referred to in the military. The cliché goes that guys on the ground don’t charge the enemy for their country or glory or the girl back home; they charge for the guys around them. Building a cooperative unit out of individuals is inherently hard and the many federal job training efforts don’t always work to build cooperative units. Repeated interactions build knowledge and to some extent happiness. It also builds cooperation, as numerous iterations of prisoners dilemma, divide-the-money, and similar game-theory games.

In WIA-land, however almost all programs work on a continuous-entry, continuous-exit model in which any individual is on his (usually) own. Most WIA vendors are in the meantime operating off-the-shelf training programs. These programs can be better-run or worse-run, but they do get people started quickly. In this sense they aren’t doing as much cherry-picking as batch programs, which require more patience. But because they require more patience, they may get better outcomes due to selection biases.

When YouthBuild was first released, HUD (which ran YouthBuild at the time) didn’t require batch training. But HUD changed the second YouthBuild NOFA to reflect the very first YouthBuild proposal we’d ever written (I was about 10 at the time, so my contribution was limited), because Isaac had been involved in job training proposal writing for years and knew that batch training would be easier for YouthBuild trainees and grantees. HUD read our proposal—we wrote some of the fist funded YouthBuild grants—and realized that our approach was a winner. We like to think we had an important contribution to the way in which YouthBuild operates its training, though almost no one knows this.

We can’t tell you the right approach for your program. But we can tell you that you should be thinking about the trade-offs involved in either approach, and you should be closely reading RFPs so you can divine whether the funder already prefers one approach or the other.


* And Training to Work is on our mind because the Training to Work 3 – Adult Reentry FOA was just released.

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