The data revolution has brought us fabulous online guides for buying cars, household appliances and many financial products. In job training, however, says Harvard economist Lawrence Katz, who has studied employment and training for decades, we lack an authoritative ranking system or otherwise foolproof buying guide. (The Obama administration pushed for report cards; the Biden administration might too.) In the meantime, that places an enormous burden on those seeking job training to find the program that actually works versus one that collects tuition and leaves the worker no better off.
“Ideally, programs would all have evaluations, and you’d have very good evidence,” Katz says. You’d look at a program’s report card, see what sorts of jobs and salaries its trainees hold one, five and 10 years after graduating, and decide whether to enroll.
Katz hasn’t created the Consumer Reports of job training. But he and a team of researchers studied programs to identify traits that align with enrollees’ success. They searched for programs that propel a trainee down a path to 25% to 40% more income for at least five to 10 years, in an expanding field (you can study the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ projections on what fields are expanding).
A successful training program is all about trajectory. Yes, of course, many programs will indeed snag you a better-paying job, but most only connect trainees with jobs that pay 5% to 10% more for one to two years.
“What you want to avoid is programs that help you get jobs that you would have gotten anyway — the program just helped you get them faster,” says Jonathan Roth, an incoming assistant professor of economics at Brown University. “If they’re not providing you with new skills that are going to make you more employable and more marketable, then the effects of the programs tend to fade out over time.”
Katz’s must-have features for those signing up for training:
Certifiable skills. The first rule of thumb is to seek a sector-specific certification, degree or license. Good examples include a Microsoft or Cisco certification in technology, or a diesel repair license. Don’t get a diploma in generic computer or mechanic skills.
Wraparound services. Programs that truly change your life are typically six to 24 months long. Trainees drop out for all sorts of reasons, like child care and financial stresses. Aim for a program that offers a variety of resources that will allow you to complete the program when things get tough. Think on-site child care, financial resources and available advisers.
A relationship with a caseworker or teacher. Relationships are everything. Call the program, and talk to a caseworker or teacher to see if this person is likely to remain available and engaged. “A close connection seems to be very valuable for people who have been dislocated or have had trouble in traditional education,” Katz says.
Many employers. You want a program that leads to a number of organizations seeking to hire workers with your new skill set. “So it’s not only about one employer, who then has a lot of power over you,” Katz says. The presence of many would-be employers also indicates that your new skill set is indeed in high demand.
Soft skills training. Without communication and social skills to succeed on the job, people often fail in the workplace. Make sure your program covers this within its curriculum.
Post-employment involvement. Katz found that successful programs tend to remain involved with both employer and employee after the trainee has completed the program, helping with matters like miscommunication and discrimination, as well as partnering with employers on future job development.
Free, low-cost or income-share payment plans. Cost varies widely by field, but expect to pay in the range of $4,000 to $10,000 for a program that is at least six months long. A good option is a program funded by philanthropists, with trainees who pay back the cost as a percentage of their income. “That’s a signal that this program is likely more effective than going to some place that takes student loan money or your Pell grants. It puts the incentive on the training provider to make sure that workers get placed and have good outcomes,” Katz says.
External evaluation. Look for partnerships with universities and, if not that, any data indicating success for trainees five to 10 years down the line — programs usually happily advertise good results on their websites. “Many of these programs have now had independent evaluations done in randomized trials,” Roth says. Be analytical: Are nearly all graduates landing good paying jobs, or just a few in each cohort?
You probably want a trusted nonprofit, unless you find a for-profit with evidence of connecting people just like you to high-paying work. These programs do exist in some niche fields like diesel mechanics and allied health, where small companies have built successful training programs.