Training is the key to a better job. Low-wage workers aren’t getting it

November 27, 2013

We wrote this week about the skyrocketing economic anxieties felt by lower-income American workers --people like John Stewart, who earns $5.25 an hour plus tips (the tips part exempts his employer from strict minimum-wage requirements) pushing wheelchairs at the Philadelphia airport.

Stewart would like to go back to school to receive the training he'd need to become a hospital aide, a job that would very likely pay more than he makes now. But he doesn't have time or money to pursue that training. And in this, he is, sadly, quite the norm: Lower-income workers -- the ones who most desperately need training to compete for better jobs -- are getting the least amount of training of anyone in the workforce, resulting in a dynamic that makes it harder to catch up.

Take the results of a recent survey by The Washington Post and the University of Virginia's Miller Center, which asked workers whether they had undertaken training to keep skills and knowledge up to date or learn new skills. Among workers with household annual incomes of at least $75,000, two-thirds say they underwent training in the past year. But the training rate dips to 55 percent among middle-income workers ($35,000 to $75,000 a year) and falls further to 41 percent among workers with annual incomes under $35,000.

According to the survey, low-income workers are quite aware they are being held back by lack of training. When they're asked what their biggest obstacle is to getting ahead, "education" tops the list at 29 percent, while 19 percent of middle-income and 11 percent of higher-income workers point to education as a main obstacle. In the survey, nearly nine in 10 lower-income workers lacked a college degree.

Obstacles to training for these workers abound. More than 8 in 10 worry about not having enough money to meet their family's expenses, concerns that naturally exceed those of better-off workers. They also face recent hardships, with a majority saying someone in their household has suffered pay cuts in just the past year and one-third reporting loss of health insurance or other benefits.

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