Some states train jobless for post-pandemic workforceJanuary 10, 2021
Renato Queiroz used to be a catering manager for a hotel in Newport, Rhode Island, a historic town known for its yachts and Gilded Age mansions. “I dealt with a lot of weddings,” he said recently.
Then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and Queiroz, 31, decided to quit the floundering hospitality industry and try something new.
He enrolled in a free community college course that trains people to use chemical processing equipment. Now he’s looking for manufacturing jobs and plans to earn a bachelor’s degree. “Going through this program opened up a different world for me,” he said.
Amid high unemployment, governors and legislatures are spending some federal coronavirus relief dollars on short-term training programs, such as the 10-week program Queiroz completed recently, that they hope can help workers find new jobs quickly.
Leaders in at least nine states, including Rhode Island, are expanding grants for weeks- and months-long training in fields such as health care and information technology; paying employers to provide on-the-job training; and in some cases, paying for trainees’ textbooks and transportation.
“If we embrace this opportunity … Rhode Island’s economy will be stronger, more equal, and more resilient than ever before,” Rhode Island Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo said in a July statement announcing her plan to spend $45 million on a job training initiative called Back to Work RI.
The over $2 trillion relief package Congress approved in March included money states and localities could use for workforce development. Short-term training has been a popular way to spend the funds.
Governors and legislatures focused on shorter programs partly because of spiking unemployment and partly because of a deadline: The federal money had to be spent by the end of the year or returned to the U.S. Treasury.
“We had both a logistical challenge,” said Teresa Lubbers, the Indiana commissioner for higher education, “and we had a very practical reason to get people immediate training to get them back into the workforce.”
But some economic development experts say short-term training has an uncertain payoff. They argue that to prepare workers for good-paying jobs in today’s economy, policymakers should invest in programs that last six months or even years, such as degree programs. And they say improving workforce training on a grand scale will require significantly more federal money.
“You can make a big difference for people with a six-month or one-year certificate program. But it doesn’t mean a two-month, quickie thing,” said Paul Osterman, a professor of human resources at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “That’s not where we want to go.”
Meanwhile, states ran out of time to spend the federal aid. That happened in Missouri, where Republican Gov. Mike Parson in July set aside $9.7 million for workforce development, including $6.7 million in training grants for laid-off and low-income people.
State officials were…