23 minute read

Identifying Opportunities for Retraining


Judith Peacock

All of the following members of the American workforce have a common need. Can you tell what it is?

  • Southeast Tool and Manufacturing is updating its equipment. Fred Warner, a floor worker at Southeast, must learn to use computer controls to operate massive steel casters and stamp presses. He risks being fired if he doesn't master the new system.
  • Charlie Rucker lost his job when the noodle factory where he worked for twenty years shut down and moved to a different state to take advantage of cheaper labor. Now Charlie works as a janitor, at a much lower rate of pay and with fewer benefits.
  • Despite earning $60,000 a year as a pipe fitter at Summit Metals, Bruce Blazek finds the work tedious and boring. He dreams of being a psychologist in the company's human resources department.
  • Mollie Atterberry loves her job as an accountant with Andrew Fleming and Associates. She knows that if she wants to rise in the firm and make more money, she has to get a master's degree in business.
  • Sue Fleming has a bachelor's degree in art, but she needs hands-on skills in computer graphics and process camera work to get the kinds of art and design jobs she wants.
  • After spending nine years at home raising twins, LaFleur Greene wants to go back to work. Before staying home with her children, she worked as a telephone operator.

If you answered "retraining" to the above question, you would be absolutely right. All these workers could benefit from updating their job skills or learning new ones.

Retraining occurs for a variety of reasons: the need to keep pace with new technology, company reorganization or relocation, job obsolescence, and the desire for more challenging work, more money, or advancement. Even those who are perfectly satisfied with their jobs will find periodic retraining will be essential. Old jobs and old ways of working are rapidly disappearing, while new jobs and new ways of working are being created. Technological advances and economic developments have wrought workplace change on a scale and at a pace that was previously unimagined.

Even as many people feel threatened by this epidemic of workplace change, however, there is hope on the horizon. People can take charge, educate themselves,

Judith Peacock is a former educator who has worked in publishing for more than twenty years.

and retool their skills to meet the needs of tomorrow's workplace. In his High Growth Job Training Initiative, President George W. Bush vowed to increase the number of workers in training programs from 200,000 to 400,000 a year and give states more flexibility in using federal job training and employment grants. Employers also provide worker training. Local community colleges are partnering with businesses and opening their doors to people who want to be retrained. Educational opportunities are available through trade associations and for-profit businesses and vocational schools. No matter how and why one goes about changing or increasing workplace skills, however, it is necessary to think about the broader context of social change and how such change affects the workplace.


Whether you are entering the workplace for the first time or have already worked for a number of years, many changes are already having a profound effect on you, your work, and your relationship to the workplace.

The Heightened Pace of Change

Change is everywhere, but nowhere is it more evident than in offices and factories. As leadership scrambles to maintain or improve the business bottom line, some workers find themselves in the midst of frequent reorganizations, technological changes, physical moves, or new "programs for improvement." Learning how to feel comfortable with change should be one of the prime tools in every worker's new toolkit.

The End of the Lifetime Contract

The concept of working forever for the same employer—a product of the post–World War II ethos—began to erode almost as soon as it came into being. In fact, by the late 1960s most workers were changing jobs two or three times during their lives. It is estimated that those coming to their first job today will change employers up to a dozen times before retirement, while the median number of years that workers had been with their current employer was four in January 2004. The average person in the United States holds around nine jobs from age eighteen to age thirty-four, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In many places the "lifetime contract" has given way to the "life of the project contract" or the "contract employee." Many workers actually view this as a positive development. They look forward to the challenge of continuing to learn as they take their skills and talents from employer to employer. These new "hands for hire" are themselves changing the shape of today's workplace.

Fewer Management Layers

If the recent workplace has had a slogan, it could well be "Do More with Less." The positive impact of technology and computers on the bottom line has, in many workplaces, meant having one secretary do the work that once took three and eliminating layers of middle management. Now managers crunch their own numbers on computerized spreadsheet programs and receive support from a secretary with three other bosses. However, with faster computers and new software, twenty-four-hour voice mail, global e-mail, and fax machines and other equipment, most companies have maintained—or even enhanced—productivity. Doing more with less has become an accepted way of corporate life.

New Ways of Working

In the 1980s the North American workplace raised its collective head, somewhat tired and battered from the beating it was taking from imports, and wondered if there were lessons to be learned. It was discovered that our international competition had taken quite seriously the workplace methodologies learned from (of all places) the United States, most notably lessons on quality from W. Edwards Deming, whose early work on quality has been the virtual bible of Japanese industry. These new ways of working—teamwork, quality circles (employees who meet regularly to discuss quality or productivity solutions to problems), and benchmarking—were quickly imported back to the United States, where they continue to enjoy success because they help create better products, help newly empowered workers derive more job satisfaction, and often establish a better workplace.

New Managers and Coworkers

The workplace is becoming more diverse. Women are now assuming managerial positions that were once the sole domain of men, and most people work for at least one woman at some time during their careers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of women in the labor force is expected to increase by 10.9 percent between 2004 and 2014, while the number of men is expected to increase by only 9.1 percent over that decade. Most people work for and with individuals whose culture and background are very different from theirs. Minority groups in the workplace are expected to grow significantly; by 2004 Hispanics, for the first time, made up a greater share of the labor force than did African Americans, and their numbers are expected to grow by 2.9 percent annually, compared to an annual growth rate of 1.6 percent for African Americans and 0.7 percent for non-Hispanic whites. Many people work for businesses whose headquarters are overseas and whose corporate culture is different from the North American business culture. To adapt to these changes, people need to be more aware, more flexible, and more tolerant than ever before.

New Kinds of Jobs

The meshing of the global economy and technology is creating new kinds of jobs even as others are being eliminated. Within five years there are likely to be jobs requiring new skills that are unimaginable now.

Most of the 18.9 million new jobs expected to develop between 2004 and 2014 will be in service-producing—rather than goods-producing—industries. Service jobs can be divided into two categories: traditional, low-paying jobs (including jobs at retail stores, restaurants, and hotels) and business services.

Service jobs—even some of those in the traditional, low-wage category—are changing to meet the needs of a new kind of consumer environment. More and more consumer-focused businesses employ salespeople and other workers who are technically trained and who understand what they are selling. For possessing these skills, the workers are well paid.

Even jobs that were traditionally labeled as "menial," such as garage mechanic, demand increasing technical competency. If you raise the hood of a modern car, you will find sophisticated electronic equipment and microcomputers. Today's garage mechanics must go through a great deal of training, and they receive substantial wages for their efforts. Similarly, in today's factories robots and computers may work the actual machines, but people are needed to control the robots and computers as well as to program and service them.

The business services category covers a broad spectrum of jobs. According to former labor secretary Robert Reich in CQ Researcher, "The business service job is everything from technical sales support, lab technicians, and paralegals to systems analysts. These are good jobs, the new middle-class jobs, replacing the factory work of twenty or thirty years ago as the gateway to the middle class." Service jobs in this category demand relatively high levels of training or retraining.

The New Workplace

"Too Few Engineers!" screamed the headlines. Consequently, many college freshmen, looking for a solid career, became engineering majors. Five years later, however, the headlines painted quite a different picture: "Engineering Glut! 'Too Many,' Say Experts!" What's a job seeker to do?

Forecasting the employment market has never been an exact science. The range of available jobs has always been subject to forces beyond the control of any one individual. For many people, deciding on a career has always been a bit like playing the lottery. They train for a specific career, but by the time they're ready for that job, there may be thousands of qualified workers ahead of them. Moreover, in today's climate another scenario is all too possible: the job may become obsolete before the training is even completed.

Never before in our history has there been a more compelling argument for training, retraining, and continuing education. Now, as never before, is the time to continue the education process that makes employees so valuable in the rapidly changing workplace. Even workers who have the desire or are fortunate enough to stay with the same company will find that the company is going to change. Today's companies acquire other companies or are acquired themselves; they refocus on the existing marketplace or focus on a new and emerging market segment; and they may want to do things differently to reverse a decline and become profitable or to increase profitability. These and other changes will most likely have a direct and immediate impact on company employees and their work.

For example, a company may suddenly eliminate its office space and move to the concept of "hoteling" or the "virtual office," in which—with a notebook computer and access to a telephone—your office becomes any place where you are. Or employees may find themselves in the midst of "teaming" and "quality circles," suddenly poised for leadership roles that demand new communication skills. Whatever the changes, the configuration of many jobs will be radically redefined. It pays to be prepared.

Skills and Tools to Fit New Needs

For the individual employee, the key word is flexibility. Everyone needs to be able to adapt quickly to different circumstances. Being flexible and adaptable means having tools at hand that will be helpful, whether in the context of a first job, a promotion within a particular company, or a sudden re-entry to the job market, in search of new employment. The following basic tools will always be useful.

The Written Word

Being able to write clearly and concisely has never been more important. A great deal of information is being communicated in many words. The ability to synthesize information into a concise and well-written document is valuable to just about any part of any business organization. Taking a course in business writing (or even just plain writing) can be a sound investment.

Speaking Well

You're at a staff meeting and your boss says, "Tell us what you think of the latest marketing strategy." In a job interview, you're asked, "What's your biggest weakness?" You have been given the opportunity to explain a new manufacturing procedure to your colleagues. In all these situations your response can be very important. Public speaking doesn't necessarily mean giving a speech in front of a large crowd. Being able to speak well in front of two, ten, or twenty people is a valuable asset. A course in public speaking can help anyone prepare for key career moments.

Computer Literacy

Computer technology has been integrated into every business and industry, from trash hauling to aerospace engineering. Virtually every worker will need to know how to store information within a computerized network, access information within that network, perform computer analyses related to your job, and communicate with other computers in the network. In an article for Career World, Deborah O'Donnell Vasenda, a computer literacy teacher, said, "Computer skills will help [your] employment prospects…. Basic computer skills help a person to become more employable and give a person who receives on-the-job training a head start." Computer literacy involves more than knowing how to use a word processing program and a printer. It will be important to have some knowledge of programming and databases. Everyone will also need to know how the Internet operates and how to access information online.

Project Management Skills

Understanding different models of how to move work from point A to point B, learning how to deal with problems, and knowing how to set and meet deadlines can all prove invaluable in the workplace.

People Skills

If people are working in new ways with one another—in process teams or value circles, as empowered employees or frontline managers—they need to hone the skills that help them interact. They need to know how to become better listeners, coaches, and moderators; how to deal with men and women as colleagues; and how to understand and work with people from different backgrounds.

Job-Seeking Skills

Not only will most people change jobs several times during their careers; many people will even change careers. Some of the best tools to have are skills that will be useful in seeking a new job or starting a new career. It is important to know how to market oneself through a resumé that works, letters that sell, and a structured process of job seeking. It is equally important to learn and relearn the process of self-presentation during interviews. Finally, it is a good idea to become adept at the negotiating skills needed to obtain optimal job conditions and a competitive compensation package.


Some people look for retraining while they are still employed. For many, however, the prospect of changing from one field to another—and the retraining that such change would require—presents itself only when they have been made the subject of a reduction in force by being rightsized, downsized, or just plain "pink-slipped." In any case, several sources for retraining are available.

Federal and State Government

The federal government offers some retraining programs, mostly for workers whose job loss can be attributed to government policies or who are economically disadvantaged. For example, the Economic Dislocation and Worker Adjustment Assistance Act (EDWAA) offers retraining to workers who have been laid off and who will probably not be able to get jobs in their previous industries. Trade Adjustment Assistance (TAA) helps those workers who have been laid off because of federal policies that allow increased foreign trade. Federal employment and training programs largely function through state and local governments. As a result of welfare reform in the mid-1990s, state governments now face the challenge of providing job training services and employment for the unemployed, including homeless people and those suffering from mental illness and drug and alcohol addiction.

Government programs have undoubtedly been of help to millions of workers who lose their jobs each year and should be investigated as a possible source of retraining. At the same time, debate continues as to the scope and extent to which the government should be involved in employment services. Critics say that current government programs are too fragmented and short-lived, and that they fail to provide training that matches real jobs or jobs that pay a living wage. As an example, critics point to the failure of TAA to help thousands of workers in Texas displaced by the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). The Bush Administration has sought to rectify some of these issues. In March 2005, the House of Representatives passed the Job Training Improvement Act, a bill designed to simplify the job training system. The act includes a provision to allow states and local entities to create pilot programs that offer unemployed Americans personal reemployment accounts of up to $3,000. As of 2006, the Senate had not voted on the bill. If passed by the Senate, the Act would build on the High Growth Job Training Initiative of 2002, which invests in training programs for selected industries such as automotive, biotechnology, and health care, and the Workforce Investment Act enacted in 1998.

Company Retraining

U.S. companies spend more than $60 billion a year on programs to train new employees, improve employee performance, or prepare employees for new jobs. The training may be conducted in-house by a company trainer or outsourced to a private consulting firm, a professional association, or a college or university. As a way of recruiting and maintaining employees, many companies offer to pay the tuition for employees who want to take college courses. For example, McDonald's restaurants in Alabama cover the costs for employees who want to take computer courses at the University of Alabama.

In T+D Magazine, Chris Taylor described four companies that survived a difficult economic period in the early 2000s. These companies—Southwest Airlines, Viacom, Dell, and Guardsmark—place a high value on employee training. Southwest Airlines, which has an excellent training program, refrained from cutting its training budget after 9/11, despite a drop in business. In fact, Southwest actually increased its training budget during that time. Similarly, Viacom did not cut training after advertising revenue shrank during recession years. That company has also added training in the past few years. Dell added a new priority for their leadership, which was to create a winning culture. Dell provides training sessions that inform employees on financial education and on all aspects of Dell. The thinking is that employees who understand the larger picture of the company's performance can suggest practical ways to save time and money. Dell also customized some of their training and eliminated generic training courses.

In recent years, more and more companies have turned to local community colleges and technical schools for help in retraining their employees. As reported in Business Week, many companies in the Rockford, Illinois, area send workers back to school at local Rock Valley Community College to take courses in teamwork and problem solving, among other subjects. Other companies have developed other models. Hewlett-Packard (HP), for example, has worked with the College of San Mateo (in California) to develop computer-based, interactive training in electronics for HP technicians and production workers. In addition, the school has established computer centers at several HP plants. Corporate-sponsored retraining programs through community colleges are usually administered by individual companies. However, a group of corporations, including Xerox, Kodak, Motorola, and Texas Instruments, have joined together to form the Consortium for Supplier Training. The consortium chooses various community colleges nationwide to teach courses in proven quality methods to the suppliers of consortium members.

The Hartford Life Insurance Company provides a twist to company-sponsored retraining. Similar examples can be found elsewhere in the private sector. In contrast to offering job training to company employees, Hartford offers to help its policyholders who have a disability return to the workforce. The company pays the costs of schooling so that clients can retrain for positions that accommodate their disabilities. It also pays for tools, books, uniforms, and other items that will enable policyholders with a disability to switch to different lines of work. Hartford's program, while boosting the earning power of its clients, has benefits for the company, too. Paying for retraining is more cost-effective in the long run than paying a lifetime of disability benefits.

Community Colleges

Traditionally, two-year community colleges have served young people who were not yet ready for a four-year college. Whereas community colleges continue to serve this population, their educational outreach has greatly expanded in the last few years. Many people with advanced degrees are enrolling in community colleges. These "reverse transfer" students find that community colleges offer the specific skills they need to move ahead in their jobs, keep abreast of their professions, or change careers. As noted above, community colleges are reaching out to industry workers through corporate contracts to provide training. Community colleges are also helping to educate welfare recipients. In Oregon, for example, the state's Adult and Family Services agency and community colleges work together to help people get off welfare and into the workforce.

Community colleges are enjoying a new role in the academic world because they can provide exactly the kind of education or training that many workplaces require. For those who are unemployed or are planning to change careers, the message is clear: investigate the courses offered at a nearby community college as a means of improving or updating current skills or learning new ones.

Colleges and Universities

Colleges and universities continue to provide traditional four-year and graduate degree programs in various subject fields to young adults. Whereas corporations have recently pursued college graduates with business degrees, more and more employers are also seeking graduates with bachelor's degrees. A good liberal arts program can produce the kind of workers companies need—generalists who can think creatively, solve problems, communicate effectively, and adapt to change. People seeking to advance in corporate careers would do well to mix business courses with liberal arts courses.

During the past decade, colleges and universities have adjusted to declining enrollments in their undergraduate programs by offering nontraditional, occupation-related courses and programs. They have also been gearing courses toward older adults who may be seeking a graduate or an undergraduate degree. The newer programs take into account the fact that most adult students are full-time workers by scheduling classes in the evenings, on Saturdays, or even online. In many colleges and universities, continuing education programs are bursting at the seams.

Postsecondary Vocational Schools

Postsecondary vocational schools are for people who have left high school and who are not pursuing a four-year college degree. They focus on training or upgrading of skills for people in the labor force (blue-collar workers) as opposed to people in management (white-collar workers). They may provide some academic training, but they generally train an individual in one occupation (for example, mechanic, nurse's aide, home health worker, electrician). Public postsecondary vocational schools generally offer a variety of programs. The majority of private postsecondary vocational schools specialize in one area, such as cosmetology and barbering, arts and design, or broadcasting.

Labor Unions and Professional Associations

At some companies, workers have found that when their union joins in partnership with management, the potential for new job development actually increases. For example, when Ford Motor Company was faced with a major layoff in the early 1980s, the company met with the United Auto Workers (its major union) to form a plan of action. They worked together to establish a joint employee retraining program. The main goal of the program was to get the laid-off workers back in the workforce quickly.

Ford established reeducation centers where employees received training in skills that potential employers were looking for: high school equivalency, fluency in the English language, and a variety of technical skills, including basic computer programming. The company even allowed potential employers to interview Ford employees at the worksite. The results were extraordinary: within two years, 80 percent of the laid-off workers who had taken part in the program had found new jobs.

A developing trend in company and labor union cooperation is pre-crisis training. Rather than waiting until employees have been laid off, retraining occurs on an ongoing basis, with an eye toward possible workforce changes.

Apprenticeship Training

One of the oldest forms of training in the United States, and around the world, is apprenticeship. A clear advantage of this type of training is that it almost guarantees the participant a job when the training is completed. In fact, because on-the-job training is an integral part of an apprenticeship program, most graduates already have a job and have been receiving a salary while in the training program. "The apprenticeship-trained worker is more likely to earn more money, work more hours per year, and rise to a supervisory status than are workers who have learned the trade through other methods," according to Monthly Labor Review.

Hundreds of occupations in the United States can be learned through apprenticeship. Some of the jobs have highly structured requirements for entry; others are less structured. Close to five hundred thousand people participate in apprenticeship programs each year. Although most programs are in the manufacturing and construction fields, apprenticeships are being developed in service fields, including programs to train health care workers, child care providers, jewelers, medical technologists, and audio-video repairers.

Apprenticeship differs from other types of training in that the job must be learned in a hands-on, practical way. A minimum of two thousand hours of on-the-job experience, as well as instruction, is usually required. Most programs require a high school diploma or general equivalency diploma (GED) to enter. Other requirements depend on the nature of the job. For example, an apprentice electrician might be required to have a background in algebra or electronics courses.

Armed Forces

The armed forces are the largest employer in the United States, with more than 1.5 million people on the payroll. Since the end of the draft in 1973, the government has had to find ways to attract able men and women into the military. A key ingredient in its recruiting program has been the prospect for those who en-list of receiving extensive training. Many service people receive college credit for the technical training they receive on duty and, in addition to off-duty courses, it can lead to an associate's degree through a community college program, such as the Community College of the Air Force.

Training is indeed a considerable benefit to joining the armed forces. There are about two thousand basic and advanced occupations in the service, and most of them have civilian counterparts. Therefore, training received in the military can often be transferred to the civilian workplace. In addition to jobs with direct applicability to combat duty, jobs exist in such diverse areas as welding, plumbing, video editing, photography, and engineering.

Nonprofit Organizations

Job retraining is also available through nonprofit organizations across the country. These organizations receive funding through federal, state, and/or private sources. The Corporation for Business, Work, and Learning in Massachusetts sends rapid-response teams into industrial companies facing job cuts. The teams teach employees skills they need to have to compete in more consumer-oriented fields. Lifetrack Resources, Inc., in Minnesota, offers job training and retraining to people with mental and physical disabilities, people who are disadvantaged, and people experiencing transitions in their careers and personal lives. In addition to providing classroom training, Lifetrack Resources arranges with local businesses to provide on-the-job training.

Home Study

Each year five million Americans enroll in correspondence school programs. These include televised courses offered by colleges and universities for academic credit. Home study courses offer a convenient, inexpensive way to acquire new skills and knowledge. The Directory of Accredited Institutions, available in most libraries, assesses the quality and reputation of specific correspondence courses.


It is obvious that opportunities for retraining abound. A major impetus for seeking retraining today is that the job market for skilled workers is growing. The Department of Labor projects the education and health service industry sectors will have the fastest employment growth between 2004 and 2014. In most parts of the United States, workers with the right training can not only find jobs but also negotiate salaries, benefits, and working conditions.


There is no question that major economic and sociological forces are at work today, creating an uneasy sense that the future is out of our control. People can, however, reclaim some control by making retraining a high priority on their personal agendas. The skills that will make them valuable employees are not exotic, mysterious, or necessarily highly technical. Many are general skills, valuable precisely because they can be applied in a broad variety of workplace circumstances.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesEmployment Trends