What Can Worker Training Do? Plenty, But Career Ladders Need to Lead to Rewarding Jobs

Source: Joan Fitzgerald and Andrew Sum, American Prospect, Vol. 18 no. 5, May 2007

One out of every six full-time U.S. workers earns less than 125 percent of the poverty line—under $18,865 a year for a family of three. And the share of low-wage workers is considerably higher in many of the sectors with the most job growth: retailing, hotel and food services, health care, and human services. Full-time workers in the bottom tenth of the wage distribution saw their weekly earnings decline by about 1 percent over the past six years, reversing the trend of rising wages that occurred from 1995 to 2000. For low-skilled youths, finding even a bad job has become more difficult. The problem is especially acute for young black men, with only 33 percent of black high school dropouts able to secure any type of job, and only 25 percent working full time in 2005.

Workforce development can be a promising strategy, but by itself it cannot compensate for inadequate schools, the serial disadvantages of poverty in early childhood, and a labor market that often leads only to more low-wage jobs. Workers would have a far better chance of improving their earnings if they were better educated before they entered the workforce, and if education and training were complemented by other labor market interventions such as higher minimum wages, stronger unions, and a national strategy of creating good jobs.

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