Skills to Live By: Participant Reflections on the Value of their Sectoral Training Experience

Maureen Conway
Amy Blair
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Workforce Strategies Initiative
The Aspen Institute
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This resource describes the third phase of a sectoral approach (targeting high priority industry clusters and related jobs) to education and training for low income and low-skilled individuals, especially to identify the successes and challenges they have faced participating and remaining in the labor market four years after training. 26 participants from three different programs were interviewed (individually and in focus groups). The study illuminates how the training influenced participants' employment path and how other life experiences have played a role. These honest, poignant experiences, successes, and challenges are heard through the participants' voices and the authors' interpretations of what they heard in the study.

Three significant themes emerged. First, participants strongly believed that acquiring the technical job skills increased their confidence and made them more employable. However, the participants repeatedly said that it was the soft skills-communication, conflict resolution, body language, self-confidence-that changed their ability to succeed in the system. Second, support systems were reported by all respondents as crucial to their ability to succeed in the training program. They mentioned informal peer networks and study groups, counseling services financial support, and child care assistance. Respondents also mentioned the beneficial aspects of how the program helped them to identify and address personal barriers to success. The third significant theme was that the participants had specific goals for work and employment and understood how the program would help them meet those goals. The realistic, hands-on learning environment in their program was described again and again as critical for providing the motivation to succeed and real-life experiences to build confidence and compete successfully for jobs.

Although the sample size was small, the authors emphasize that the study reveals the challenges low-income and low-skilled individuals continue to face even after successful education and training. These implications are relevant for practitioners and providers, workforce development system building, and policy makers. In addition, the participants' experiences can provide poignant readings and discussions for students who have similar needs and issues in adult education and training programs.

What the experts say
This report provides rich feedback from people who have participated in comprehensive workforce development programs; in particular it points to the complicated realities of many participants' lives (e.g., childcare and eldercare demands, health issues, lack of transportation) that make it difficult or impossible for a program graduate to employed and increase income. The report also summarizes how jobs seekers define a "good job." While a decent salary and benefits are typically seen as characteristics of a good job, participants also cited job satisfaction (i.e., doing something that was meaningful), a positive work environment, a schedule and location that allowed the individual to juggle family responsibilities, and a sense of autonomy.

The most useful features of the study report are its:

  • readability;
  • ability to enhance understanding of the population of individuals who complete occupational training programs; its clear implications for practice for adult educators involved work-related education and human resource personnel;
  • narrative from the point of view of the program participants;
  • insights into the many confounding factors (family health, childcare, transportation) that get in the way of further education, career progress, and better paying jobs.
Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research:26 participants were selected to represent a mix of the participants in the original study. They were interviewed (individually and in focus groups) approximately four years after they had participated in the previous, larger study of several hundred participants in the Aspen Institute's Sectoral Employment Development Learning Project (SEDLP) between 1997 and 2001. Interview protocols and guides were constructed based on previous studies findings that participants had found significant employment opportunities outside of the field for which they were trained, that despite positive employment experiences (i.e., health insurance benefits) health and family issues remained serious barriers. The third finding was that many participants indicated they would continue their education but few had.

Participants in this study came from three of the six participating programs: Project QUEST, Focus HOPE, and Cooperative Home Care Associates (AHCA). Two groups were form from each program-one group for those who remained in the sector for which they trained and one for people who left. The authors analyzed the results of interviews and Identified common themes.