ERIC Identifier: ED296120
Publication Date: 1988-00-00
Author: Naylor, Michele
Source: ERIC Clearinghouse on
Adult Career and Vocational Education Columbus OH.
Preventing Obsolescence through Adult Retraining. ERIC Digest
Rapid technological changes, dramatic shifts in labor force distribution, and
the increasing pressures of foreign competition have made the dangers of skill
obsolescence and eventual job loss a reality for many American workers.
Moreover, there is every likelihood that the need for retraining will continue
to increase. Economic security is coming to depend less on expertise and more on
flexibility (Perelman 1984). This ERIC Digest examines why past responses to
skill obsolescence are no longer sufficient, describes the elements that should
be included in a comprehensive program to prevent skill obsolescence, and
proposes appropriate roles of business, labor, and government in retraining.
WHY ARE RETRAINING PROGRAMS NEEDED?
In the past,
employer-provided, job-specific training for new employees and continuing
education for those who wished to advance in their jobs were often sufficient to
keep abreast of technological changes. When automation resulted in massive labor
market shifts, the solution to worker dislocation was often relocation. However,
large-scale layoffs and plant closings in the last two decades have focused
attention on reeducation and retraining. The rapid pace of technological
advancement, the shrinking supply of entry-level workers, and the increasing
complexity and abstractness of many jobs coupled with lower levels of general
education among labor market entrants made it imperative that more attention be
paid to the issue of preventing skill obsolescence among American workers.
After analyzing many successful and unsuccessful retraining and worker
relocation programs, Gordus, Gohrband, and Meiland (1987) drew a distinction
between "reactive" responses to changing job skill requirements (i.e.,
retraining programs that are begun only after massive permanent layoffs and
plant closings have occurred) and "active" retraining programs that anticipate
future skill deficits and provide training to upgrade workers' skills before
jobs are lost and plants are forced to close.
BENEFITS OF AN ACTIVE APPROACH TO RETRAINING
Gordus et al.
(1987) demonstrated that even exemplary programs begun only after workers'
skills have become obsolete and their jobs have been lost are expensive ($800 to
$3,500 per participant for vocational skills training) and their outcomes vary
widely (the placement rates from six demonstration sites of a model economic
readjustment assistance program ranged from 9 to 81 percent) (p. 13). Time is
another crucial factor. Effective retraining programs--whether remedial or
intended to teach workers new skills--take time to plan and implement. Program
providers who must initiate retraining programs after workers have been
dislocated do not have time to engage in long-term planning, and unemployed
persons are often unwilling to participate in lengthy retraining programs.
Because they do not have such time constraints, ongoing retraining programs
geared toward persons who are currently employed can be more carefully planned
By anticipating what skills their workers will need in the future, employers
can prepare their present employees to respond to changing demands imposed by
technological advances and thereby avoid the disruption in operations and added
expenses related to recruiting, hiring, and training new employees. Workplace
retraining programs also benefit employees by increasing their basic skills,
enhancing their employability, improving their job performance, and providing
them with the skills needed to perform new jobs and adapt to new technologies
(Gordus, Gohrband, and Meiland 1987).
WHO SHOULD PROVIDE THE RETRAINING?
Business, labor unions,
and government can all play a role in funding and/or providing retraining.
Funders can make their influence felt by selecting the training provider and
shaping the content of training. Of course, funders retain the most control over
a program when they provide the training themselves rather than paying an
independent institution to provide educational services. Employers who provide
their own training can increase the incentive for employees to participate in
retraining by making the instruction relevant to employees' work experiences.
According to Gordus et al. (1987), the most successful programs, in terms of
postprogram wage raises, are those operated by employers and unions. Federal,
state, and local government funding can be combined with union or business funds
to varying extents.
The National Alliance of Business (1987) described the following examples of
ways in which public funds can be used in privately run retraining programs to
prevent skill obsolescence among persons who are currently employed:
Funds provided by the state of Michigan's Upgrade Program are used to train
Frost, Inc. employees in the use of flexible manufacturing systems. As an added
incentive, employees are given the opportunity to purchase home computers at
The National Technological University's degree program offers management
seminars accredited by the North Central Association of Universities and several
Master of Science degrees via satellite-transmitted training through a network
of 24 universities.
In Delaware, funds provided through the Blue Collar Jobs Act of 1984 are used
to pay part of the costs for customized training that is tailored to companies'
written specifications. Trainers are paid half before training is provided and
half after it has been satisfactorily completed.
At the Alabama Center for Quality and Productivity, a governor-appointed
seven-person board guides curriculum development to ensure that it is responsive
to business needs and helps market the program. The center operates on land
donated by General Motors and has trained 3,000 GM staff in quality control.
WHAT SHOULD A RETRAINING PROGRAM INCLUDE?
The content of a
workplace retraining program depends largely on the specific skill needs of the
individual industry or company in which the program participants are employed.
Gordus et al. (1987) identified the following program elements, which may be
used in different combinations to meet the needs of individual employers and
employees: o A counseling/educational guidance component that provides adults
with the information and skills required to develop an action plan for their own
career and educational development o An assessment system (as nonthreatening as
possible) that enables educational institutions and employers to determine where
training and upgrading are needed o A support system that provides such elements
as tuition assistance, time off from work for learning, a study site within the
workplace, child care, and recognition of the program participants' achievements
o A basic skills program (which may require another name so as to avoid any
stigma that may be attached to employees' need for remediation) o A vocational
skills program (which should integrate learning with practical application in
the workplace to the greatest extent possible) o A general skills program that
includes communication and organizational skills o Management development
Other elements were identified in a study of ways to persuade those in fields
of declining opportunities to take advantage of retraining (Miskovic 1987). The
study found that workers have a limited perspective of the workplace, do not
judge a job on the basis of its potential as a career path, and are adverse to
taking risks. Recommendations to overcome these barriers include the following:
o Take the program down to the personal level o Confront specific problems and
concerns o Ensure a short time frame o Talk in terms of options and
opportunities o Create a central source of help and information
FEATURES OF SUCCESSFUL RETRAINING PROGRAMS
aspects aside, the success or failure of collaborative programs to prevent skill
obsolescence can depend on the way in which a partnership is established and the
way in which a program is organized. Gordus et al. (1987) listed the following
actions as being crucial to the success of retraining partnerships: o
Identification of differences between educational and corporate institutions in
terms of their missions, goals, and climate so that respect for differences can
be developed and supported o Identification of mutual goals and objectives o
Clear demarcation of roles and responsibilities o Multiple contacts among many
levels of the organization so that knowledge of each other's plans and problems
can be acquired o Careful communication on both sides, including the development
and maintenance of information-sharing procedures o Flexibility based on trust
and knowledge of what can and cannot be accomplished in each organization o
Rapid responses to concerns and complaints from all partners o Development of a
reward and recognition system for learners and for persons working on the
Diverse as the many types of retraining program partnerships may be, it is
important that they include a mix of general employability and job-specific
skills to prepare program participants to adapt to future workplace changes that
cannot as yet be predicted with certainty.
This ERIC Digest is based upon the following
Gordus, J. P.; Gohrband, C. A.; and Meiland, R. R. PREVENTING OBSOLESCENCE THROUGH RETRAINING: CONTEXTS, POLICIES, AND PROGRAMS. INFORMATION SERIES NO. 322. Columbus: ERIC
Clearinghouse on Adult, Career, and Vocational Education, The National Center
for Research in Vocational Education, The Ohio State University, 1987. (ERIC
Document Reproduction Service No. ED 290 932).
Miskovic, D. A STUDY OF ATTITUDES
ASSOCIATED WITH RETRAINING. PART II. Washington, DC: National Association of
Broadcasters, 1987. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 280 997).
National Alliance of Business. SHARPENING THE COMPETITIVE EDGE. CASE STUDIES: PARTNERSHIPS FOR TRAINING AND RETRAINING IN A CHANGING ECONOMY.
Washington, DC: National Alliance of Business, 1987. (ERIC Document Reproduction
Service No. ED 294 993).
Perelman, L. J. THE LEARNING ENTERPRISE. ADULT LEARNING, HUMAN CAPITAL, AND
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT. Washington, DC: Council of State Planning Agencies, 1984.