- Workplace Education for Low-Wage Workers
Worker training is often cited as the panacea for the displacements, challenges, vagaries, and inequities of the "new economy." Since workers with college degrees have fared considerably better in today's economy than those without, lack of education and marketable workplace skills are often cited as the major reason for the growing numbers of working poor. Cited much less frequently in mainstream discussions are issues like declining union density, erosion of the minimum wage, lack of career paths and a reward system for acquiring higher skills in lower strata jobs. Unfortunately, this book falls decidedly in the mainstream.
Through the use of American Society for Training and Development data, telephone surveys, and case studies, the authors attempt to look at the frequency, type, and impact of training provided by employers to low-wage [End Page 102] workers. The authors identify certain types of organizations that are more likely to provide training to low-wage workers. Barriers to providing this training and public policy implications are also discussed. There is, however, no identification of union status in any of the analysis of the training offered.
The authors found that a major barrier to workplace training is the nature of many low wage jobs—the fact that it is costly for employers to provide low-wage workers training time during working hours because the jobs required "coverage" at all times (unlike many higher paid managerial or professional employees who could integrate training into the work day). Although the authors identify this as a barrier, one of their solutions—electronic learning —ignores the special learning needs that many low-wage workers have, and the fact that internet access is lower among these workers.
Although there is passing reference to the desirability of wage and career path incentives for low-wage workers who engage in workplace training, it is not a central focus of the book. It should be noted that this study was done during a period of very low unemployment and a tight labor market (1999-2000)—a time in which those who had minimal work experience were given the opportunity to work, and workers had some ability to "pick and choose" jobs, leaving one low wage job for another to get a modest raise or better working conditions. The perspective of the authors is very much tilted toward the benefits to employers of providing training to low-wage workers. For instance, in one case study the employer had identified a turnover cost of $5,000 per employee. Workplace training reduced employee turnover; therefore the training was seen as being cost effective. There was no discussion of passing along any savings to increased wages.
The authors argue that transferable skills, rather than specific workplace based skills, are of the greatest value to both employers and workers, but employers are the least likely to invest in this type of training. Recognizing that the market is imperfect, the authors make public policy recommendations that include government intervention to reduce training costs to employers and government facilitation of the creation of standardized systems for measuring the economic impact of employers' investments in education and training. Interestingly, they also call for changes in financial reporting of expenditures on training to eliminate the current situation in which financial markets penalize investments in training by treating them as a cost.
This study is easy to read, and may be useful to practitioners and consultants to employers developing training systems.