As the economy threatens to sink into a double-dip recession, pressure is growing for federal, state, and local governments to do something about the 16 million Americans who remain out of work. One solution popular with politicians of all stripes—and with both business and labor groups—has been job training programs to close the gap between employers' needs and workers' skills.

“Even though a lot of folks are looking for work, there are a lot of companies that are actually also looking for skilled workers; there’s a mismatch that we can close,” President Obama said in June in presenting a community college program to teach manufacturing skills. Meanwhile, Mayor Bloomberg has launched a series of job training initiatives, most recently as part of his new Young Men's Initiative to aid black and Latino teens—a cause to which he gave $30 million of his own pocket money.

Yet as the economic woes continue, there's an obvious question: Is there any point in training people for jobs at a time when even people with advanced degrees are increasingly having trouble finding work? Or do job training programs—a catchall term that can include everything from classes in proper job interview etiquette to actual training in advanced skills—only rearrange the deck chairs of who holds down the few available jobs?

It's a question to which even those in field largely throw up their hands in ignorance. And at least some economists who've studied training programs and the job market warn that while job training can be invaluable to specific individuals who end up with a degree or job skills, it's foolish to rely on it to improve the lot of poor Americans as a whole, especially in times of a stagnating economy.

"Training is at its most valuable when you have a growing economy and you have labor shortages. Employers are looking for people, and they can't find them," says labor economist Ross Eisenbrey, vice-president and policy director of the D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. "If we get to the point where companies are laying off again, and employment is actually falling, on a macroeconomic level you can train all the people you want and it's not going to really help very much."

When job policy meant jobs

Job training was not always the multibillion-dollar industry that it is today. In the 1970s, the primary federal program to combat unemployment was the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), which coupled job training with actual government-funded jobs. Established by President Nixon in 1973, by the latter part of the decade it was putting it put nearly 750,000 people to work in jobs in local governments and non-profit agencies, while providing another 1 million summer jobs for youth.

All that ended in 1982, when CETA was eliminated in one of President Reagan's first moves to rein in "big government." Yet with the U.S. in the midst of a recession and facing double-digit unemployment, Reagan couldn't abandon jobs programs altogether. And so was born the Job Training Partnership Act—penned by then-freshman Senator Dan Quayle—which devoted more than $1 billion a year in block grants to states to set up their own job training programs.

JTPA later evolved into the Clinton-era Workforce Investment Act (WIA), which remains in place today as the federal government's main job-training funding stream. At the same time, the advent of welfare reform in 1996 led to an explosion of job-training and "job readiness" initiatives. New York City alone now spends almost $1 billion a year on job training and placement services, most of it funded through WIA, according to a 2007 study by the Center for an Urban Future.

The result has been a panoply of different training initiatives, ranging from the Human Resources Administration's much-criticized Back to Work program that focuses on pressing welfare recipients to apply for jobs as quickly as possible, to more intensive programs run by private non-profits, to the Workforce1 centers run by several institutions under a contract with the city Department of Small Business Services.

The Workforce1 centers in particular are designed to serve all comers, whether teenagers seeking their first jobs or laid-off workers looking to start a new career. Employers are brought in to do presentations and conduct interviews on-site. For job seekers, the centers provide a place to polish resumes and get advice about what jobs are available; for employers, it's effectively a pre-screening service to weed out applicants with no hope of getting hired.

"You put a call out, and a week later you get 10,000 resumes," says SBS Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Planning Matthew White. "We're basically saving them time and money on the recruitment front."

First, training. Then …?

All of these programs can point to numbers showing how many people they've successfully placed in jobs. HRA says its Back to Work program is on pace to place 85,000 people in jobs in 2011, while White says the Workforce1 centers are on track toward a target of 35,000 placements, double their figure from four years ago.

Much of the debate around these programs has been over the quality of the jobs their graduates obtain, and whether those new hires are sticking long-term. But a deeper question remains: If no new jobs are being created—and the most recent figures show that the number of jobs in New York City isn't even keeping up with the rise in population—then are the training programs merely getting people jobs at the expense of other applicants, who end up taking their place on the unemployment line?

"That's not a question we can answer," says HRA spokesperson Connie Ress. White notes hopefully that since SBS not only helps companies save on recruitment costs but with other needs—the Workforce1 Centers each include a small satellite office to provide business owners with financial and legal assistance—"we hope there are some savings or productivity increases that can lead to job creation."

In addition to greasing the hiring wheels, the notion that training people for jobs helps encourage more employment relies on the "skills mismatch" hypothesis cited by Obama. As jobs become more technically demanding, the theory goes, the needs of employers are increasingly outpacing the skills of potential employees. As a result, businesses don't hire as many workers as they might otherwise, because it's too hard to find skilled labor.