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Job Training Grant Programs: An Enigma Wrapped in a Riddle

Two Wall Street Journal articles on job training grant programs caught my eye.

The first, “U.S. Faces Uphill Battle in Retraining the Jobless,” recounts that sad tale of a hapless unemployed worker who got caught up in a job training program only to end up pushing a broom in a supermarket. The authors, Ianthe Dugan and Justin Scheck, seem incredulous that there are at least 47 separate federal job training programs, along with presumably hundreds of state and local job training programs.

As a grant writer, I say, “What’s the problem?” The more programs, the more opportunities for grant applications and the less likelihood that the Program Officer for any given job training program will realize that your agency has been gotten funding for the same concept from other job training pots of money. To paraphrase Gordon Gekko in Wall Street in grant writing, “confusion, for lack of a better word, is good.”

The deeper question arises: Why stop with 47 federal job training programs, when 57 would even be better? I’m not sure where the intrepid reporters got the 47 number, but I have a feeling they missed a few. For example, the article fails to mention one of our favorite job training programs, YouthBuild, about which we’ve written many times. While the article describes some of the foibles of trying to train people for jobs that probably don’t exist, YouthBuild is the champ of persevering in the face of futility. This is because the primary goal of YouthBuild, as mandated by Congress, is to train at-risk youth and young adults for construction industries careers—an outcome that has been extremely unlikely for the last four years because of the Great Recession. In other words, why are the feds training more carpenters when the country is awash in unemployed carpenters? The answers lead us towards politics, but those of us who write grants keep churning out YouthBuild proposals that find a way to explain away the dismal metrics of our clients at placing trainees in jobs, which we do through the magic of specious grant writing.

Speaking of metrics, the article also bemoans the lack of metrics in federal job training programs:

But government efforts to determine the effectiveness of the programs have been spotty, at best. It doesn’t keep track of how many people receive federally funded training. Some training programs don’t bother to monitor whether the unemployed workers who complete them succeed in landing jobs related to their training. For programs that do track job placement, the data are far from conclusive.

The above may be depressing to taxpayers, but it makes a grizzled grant writer want to dance a jig. Having written an untold number of job training programs since the hoary days of the late, lamented Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program of the mid-1970s, I know that outcomes for job training programs are wonderfully impossible to measure. Any effective measurement strategy would be fantastically complicated and expensive, since the trainees would have to be followed for years (Katherine Newman does something like this in many of her books, like Chutes and Ladders: Navigating the Low-Wage Labor Market and No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City, but she’s anomalous and an uncommonly thorough academic, rather than a commonly un-thorough bureaucrat). So, as grant writers, we just imagine the outcomes when developing the project objectives, knowing the funders will have no means to verify these and little interest in trying.

The second WSJ article on job training, “From Prison to Paycheck,” describes a very different approach to job training. In this piece, Howard Husock discusses programs for re-entering prisoners in which job training is tossed out the window entirely and replaced with immediate job placement. This assumes that whatever minimal training is needed for entry-level jobs will be learned on-the-job. Duh.

When I was a young man, I had jobs varying from drug store clerk to hospital stock boy to truck driver, all of which I learned to do in about two hours. Most federal job training programs presuppose that clients need extensive training and the ever-popular “wraparound supportive services” before entering the vaunted “world of work.”* We’ve written lots of prisoner re-entry proposals, which are larded with supportive services and training, but Mr. Husock has found several programs that seem to work by skipping the appetizers and getting right to the entree of a job. Refreshing, but I know enough not to propose project concepts like this, because it flies in the face of conventional wisdom and grant writing is largely about telling readers what they want to read.

* There are two free grant writing phrases in this sentence.