Retraining has taken on increased significance over the past two decades as globalization and economic restructuring in many Western, industrialized nations has resulted in widespread worker displacement. Traditional industries, such as farming, manufacturing, and natural resource extraction, have been particularly affected. Changing consumer demands for individualized rather than mass-produced products has contributed to the changing nature of work and the reorganization of many work environments. In addition, declining natural resources has led to the collapse of certain labor-intensive industries altogether and the downsizing of others. The skills and knowledge required of individuals who work in labor-intensive industries are, in many cases, industry specific and not easily transferable to other forms of employment. The result is an increasing number of unemployed individuals with little or no opportunity for reemployment without specific forms of intervention.
Differentiating between retraining and training requires an understanding of the underlying concepts and the target populations. The term displaced worker is used with specific reference to individuals who have been permanently displaced from employment. The term displacement is applied to workers who suffer job loss through structural reorganization and industry decline and who are unlikely to find reemployment without some form of intervention. While an unemployed individual may hope to acquire work with his or her current skills and knowledge, displaced individuals often have a skill set and knowledge base not easily transferred to other jobs or economic sectors. Thus retraining targets a specific population: displaced workers.
Traditional training programs, whether provided publicly or privately, can supply the kinds of skill upgrading and job search assistance needed by the unemployed who have existing, transferable skills. The needs of workers displaced by industrial decline often differ significantly. For many working in traditional industries, higher levels of education are not normally required for the vast majority of jobs in that industry. As such, workers displaced through industrial decline often have comparably lower levels of education. Displaced workers with lower levels of education, coupled with industry-specific skills and knowledge, require particular kinds of training programs. It is more appropriate to use the term retraining, as opposed to simply training, when referring to the needs of displaced workers. The use of the term retraining recognizes that the particular needs and circumstances of displaced workers are quite different from those of the unemployed in general.
Research and writing specifically devoted to retraining is sparse. When research and writing is undertaken on retraining, it is more often subsumed within the broader fields of adult education and lifelong learning. Within the field of adult education, research and writing on training is primarily concerned with training as it occurs in the workplace and with continuing education. Little consideration has been given to the particular needs of displaced workers and thus retraining. Lifelong learning has historically focused on learning across the life course generally. More recently, writings on lifelong learning have begun to focus on the role of lifelong learning in the context of globalization and economic restructuring. Emphasis has been placed on the importance of skill and knowledge acquisition throughout life as preparation for, and maintenance of, employment in a global economy. Yet even with the recognition of the need for lifelong learning as a result of economic restructuring, research on lifelong learning remains broad based and general and does not focus on the specific particularities of worker displacement and retraining.
Research conducted on retraining focuses almost exclusively on the analysis of statistics associated with worker displacement, the implications of displacement for the individual, retraining outcomes, and rates of return. For example, issues such as wage levels prior to and following displacement, earnings loss, and reemployment percentages have dominated the research. Studies have also focused on specific retraining programs at the local level, with little national or international comparison. The implications of both displacement and retraining for individual workers, their families, and their communities are featured prominently in studies on retraining. The research highlights the various barriers facing the displaced worker not only in undertaking retraining but also in securing employment following that retraining. Education levels, individual motivation, the potential for reemployment locally, family commitments, and the availability of personal or institutional financial support are common points of analysis in studies on retraining.
That workers displaced by industrial decline require specific kinds of training interventions is now more widely recognized among policymakers and those who provide training. As such, retraining programs have become popular as a means of meeting the needs of changing labor markets and individuals displaced by industrial decline. In recent years, this recognition has manifested itself in the development of retraining programs that provide technical and soft-skills training. In determining the most effective kinds of technical training, attention must be paid to local labor markets and the kinds of employment available. Technical skills training that does not meet the needs of the local labor market will not help displaced workers in securing employment. Since many workers displaced through industrial decline have lower education levels, retraining programs should provide opportunities for basic academic upgrading. It is not uncommon for those working in traditional industries to have held one job, in one industry, from a young age. With no experience in finding employment or in transitioning from one job to another, the provision of soft-skills training becomes key if these workers are to be successful in finding employment. Skills such as resume writing and interview strategies as well as job search and transition counseling can assist the displaced worker in coping with displacement and in securing employment.
In summary, retraining is specific to displaced workers. Displaced workers are those workers who find themselves unemployed with few opportunities for reemployment without distinct forms of intervention. Therefore, displaced workers require particular kinds of training to secure alternative employment. Retraining programs must be cognizant of these needs and provide displaced workers with technical and soft-skills training as well as basic academic upgrading if they are to be relevant and successful.
- Cruikshank, J. 2002. “Lifelong Learning or Retraining for Life: Scapegoating the Worker.” Studies in the Education of Adults 34:140-155.
- Lauzon, D. 1995. “Worker Displacement: Trends, Characteristics and Policy Responses.” (R-95-3). Ottawa, ON, Canada: Human Resources Development Canada, Applied Research Branch, Strategic Policy.
- Leigh, D. 1990. Does Training Work for Displaced Workers? A Survey of Existing Evidence. Detroit, MI: W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research.
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- White, M. 2004. “Re-training in the Post-industrial Era: A Comparison of Government Responses to Widespread Worker Displacement in Canada and Britain.” Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Adult Education and Counselling Psychology, University of Toronto, Toronto.
- Zippay, A. 1991. “Job-training and Relocation Experiences among Displaced Industrial Workers.” Evaluation Review 15:555-570.