WASHINGTON (AP) — As they struggle to get ahead, many low-wage workers are not taking advantage of job training or educational programs that could help them make the leap to better-paying jobs. They are often skeptical about whether such programs are even worth the trouble, a new survey shows.
In many cases, workers in low-wage positions are not using the training programs their employers offer because they don't even know they exist, the two-part AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey of both workers and employers found. Two-thirds of employers said they offer coaching or mentoring programs and 61 percent provide on-the-job training. But only 36 percent of low-wage workers reported that their employers offer such programs.
The ability to move up the career ladder has become more important as America's economic recovery is fueled by a surge in low-wage jobs at restaurants, health care centers and manufacturing sites. Job training and education can play a major role in helping these workers advance their careers and someday reach middle-class status. At the same time, employers say they invest in job training to retain current workers, reduce turnover and improve the quality of products and services.
Yet the surveys revealed a wide disparity between employers and workers in how they view the importance of training programs. While 83 percent of employers said job training is extremely or very important for upward mobility, only half of low-wage workers felt as strongly about additional training. Similarly, 77 percent of employers rated education as extremely or very important, while only 41 percent of low-wage workers rated it similarly.
Of those who were aware their employers offer such training programs, 64 percent report participating in them, the surveys found. About a quarter have taken advantage of tuition assistance benefits. Yet workers who have used these programs say they are no more likely to feel confident about their prospects for advancement than those who have not received the extra training.
The AP-NORC Center conducted two surveys to gauge the experiences and perspectives of lower-wage workers. A sample of 1,606 workers earning $35,000 or less annually were interviewed last summer, while a companion poll of 1,487 employers of such workers was conducted from November through January.
About 65 percent of the jobs the U.S. economy added since the recession ended in June 2009 were lower-wage ones, according to an analysis of monthly Labor Department employment numbers by Moody's Economics.
Patrick Clements, 61, of Blue Springs, Mo., works as a security guard making $12 an hour. He took the job after he was laid off from AT&T, where he was a management-level employee earning a much higher salary.
Clements said he's not aware of any training or educational opportunities at his company, and at his age, he's not hopeful that other job training programs could help him get any higher-paying work.
"I'm so old that nobody's going to hire me anyway," he said. "They say it's illegal to discriminate by age, but man, I was looking and it happens."
Eve Weinbaum, director of the Labor Relations and Research Center at the University of Massachusetts, said some workers have a right to be skeptical about whether additional training is really going to lead to a better job.
"All the training in the world isn't addressing the fact that wages are declining and good jobs are just not available for the vast majority of workers," she said.
Low-wage workers are even less apt to use government programs that could help them get new training or find better jobs, according to the survey. Only 18 percent have used Pell grants, a student aid program, and less than 10 percent say they have used any other government-funded program, such as one-stop employment centers or welfare-funded training services.
Among employers, 86 percent say they have never taken part in a government or publicly funded training program, with half of those saying they were not aware of programs aimed at their business sector. And 40 percent said they weren't aware of government programs in their area, the surveys showed.
Most employers say their low-wage workers have the necessary skills to perform their jobs now but were not prepared when first hired. These employers are investing in training programs to get workers up to speed, but only about half are confident they can keep these investments going in the future to keep worker skills current.
For some low-wage workers, "just the predictability of scheduling or even access to adequate transportation can be barriers in terms of schooling," said Stephanie Luce, professor of labor studies at City University of New York's School of Professional Studies. "They could be barriers to job training as well."
She also questioned whether many of the programs are truly effective in helping get workers promotions or new jobs.
"It seems to me if the training programs at the work sites really were leading to successful upward mobility, workers would be taking them," Luce said.
Only 30 percent of all workers in this income category report ever having received a promotion from their current employer, and few think they have a good chance of getting one.
Nina Troisi, 52, of Mechanicsburg, Pa., was making more than $50,000 a year in banking customer service, but after being laid off, she found work as a resident assistant at an assisted-living facility for patients with dementia. She now makes less than half her previous salary.
"It's a very underpaid job," she said. "But I really like it, it's like missionary work. You have good days and bad days, but I'm making it."
Her position does not require certification as a nursing assistant, but she is required to participate in job training such as seminars on understanding Alzheimer's disease and how to keep patients active. Troisi said the job training could be beneficial to her career in the long run.
"Absolutely, I can take what I'm learning here and take it to some other facilities that pay more, like state facilities," she said.
The surveys revealed widespread pessimism among low-wage workers, many of whom see themselves as worse off than before the recession and view their jobs as a dead end. Half said they were "not too" or "not at all" confident their current jobs will help them achieve long-term career goals.
Both employers and workers place most of the responsibility for career advancement on the individual worker, with 81 percent of employers and 78 percent of workers saying the worker shares a lot or almost all the burden. But 73 percent of workers and 78 percent of employers say that employers share at least a moderate amount of the obligation to help workers find better jobs.
By contrast, fewer than half of low-wage workers think federal, state or local government bears more than a little of the responsibility for helping workers move ahead.
The surveys were sponsored by the Joyce Foundation, the Hitachi Foundation and NORC at the University of Chicago. The Joyce Foundation works to improve workforce development and education systems to assist job seekers who may lack skills or credentials. The Hitachi Foundation aims to expand business practices that improve economic opportunities for less well-off workers while benefiting business.
The worker survey was conducted online using the GfK KnowledgePanel and by telephone by interviewers from NORC from Aug. 1 through Sept. 6, 2012. The employer survey was conducted online and by phone by NORC from Nov. 12, 2012, through Jan. 31, 2013. The margin of sampling error for the survey of workers was plus or minus 2.9 percentage points; for employers, it was 4.5 points.