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WBFO brings you NPR's live coverage of the Republican National Convention tonight from 9pm-11pm.

For Job Retraining Programs To Work, People Need To Show Up


OK, now, in this country, one of the few things politicians agree on is that the United States needs to do a better job retraining workers. President Trump recently declared a workforce development week. But a program that was supposed to retrain hundreds of former Los Angeles hotel workers shows that it can be hard just to get people to show up.

Here's Ben Bergman of our member station KPCC.

BEN BERGMAN, BYLINE: For decades, the Century Plaza was one of LA's most iconic hotels. Guests included presidents from Lyndon Johnson to Bill Clinton. But last year, the hotel closed, and hundreds of longtime workers were let go, including Judith Raymundo.

JUDITH RAYMUNDO: For me, it's a dream job working in that facility for 20 years.

BERGMAN: Even though she rarely met guests face-to-face, she felt like she knew them and she was making their day better taking in room service orders.

RAYMUNDO: I thought, I'm going to retire in this job. And after the 20 years, you get old. And suddenly, you start all over again. And it's hard.

BERGMAN: To help ease the transition, Raymundo and her former colleagues were offered extensive retraining thanks to an $800,000 state grant awarded to the city of LA. There were resume and interviewing workshops, barista training and a class on how to serve guests.

JOHANNA HULME: We have to be able to work smart, quick. Time is money.

BERGMAN: Instructor Joanna Hulme showed a group of former workers how to delicately balance champagne flutes between their fingers.


HULME: Let's see if my experienced staff...


HULME: ...how many they can get. Come on.

BERGMAN: The goal of the grant was to get workers up to speed on the latest dining and hospitality trends so they could be competitive in the job market. Adine Forman oversaw the trainings.

ADINE FORMAN: As food tastes have grown and evolved, so we need to make the workers evolve as well.

BERGMAN: But that evolution has proven difficult. After a year, just a 169 out of about 600 full-time employees have found new jobs, even as several new LA hotels have opened. The program's goal was for a 70 percent rehire rate. It met that goal by only counting the number who signed up for retraining rather than the number who were laid off. Forman says, it's not fair to count those who didn't show up.

FORMAN: Usually, when there's a mass layoff like this, people just sort of scatter to the wind. And it's really hard to find them and for them to figure out where to get help.

BERGMAN: Chef Mitchell Frieder taught a cooking course. And he's baffled as to why more people didn't take advantage of training that didn't cost them anything. He says when he used to teach a similar class at a for-profit college, the tuition was $38,000.

MITCHELL FRIEDER: This program is the entire first term from that school for free. I can't imagine why we don't have thousands of people in line to come in for this program right now. It's the oddest thing.

BERGMAN: So I asked Frieder, why wasn't there a line out the door?

FRIEDER: Unknown, can't imagine.

BERGMAN: The low turnout rate is hardly unique according to Joseph Parilla. He studies worker retraining at the Brookings Institution.

JOSEPH PARILLA: The reality is that retraining is very difficult.

FORMAN: Parilla says it can be tough to convince laid-off workers that training will pay off for them and they'll be able to land a new job, especially for older workers.

PARILLA: The calculus around investing in a new skill set and changing careers looks a lot different if you're 30 years old versus 60 years old.

BERGMAN: Parilla suspects turnout would have been better if the program provided transportation and childcare. But all of that, of course, takes money. And the U.S. spends just a fraction of the amount other industrialized countries do on worker retraining.

PARILLA: Until we start to deal with that lack of investment, we're going to continue to have this challenging conversation about the quality of these programs and the outcomes that they can deliver.

BERGMAN: Though in the case of the hotel program, funding doesn't seem to have been an issue. In fact, so few workers showed up that the city only spent $180,000 of the $800,000 awarded by the state.

For NPR News, I'm Ben Bergman in Los Angeles.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "PERISCOPE UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ben Bergman