Journal article

The impact of human capital-based education and training programs on an economically marginalized rural county in Appalachia

1 Jan 2009

Beginning in the 1970s, low-wage manufacturing areas in advanced industrialized countries experienced deindustrialization and worker dislocation as transnational corporations left for sites of lower-cost labor. In response, communities sought to rebuild their economies and pursue new employment opportunities in the restructured labor markets of the global economy. This study examines how an economically marginalized, rural Appalachian community's employment situation and a group of displaced workers employment opportunities were affected by workforce education strategies implemented in response to the county's deindustrialization and as part of its economic readjustment strategy.

Human capital investments in occupational education and skills retraining have been the dominant strategy prescribed by the federal government to assist displaced workers and deindustrialized communities. This approach interprets structural unemployment and underemployment problems of displaced workers as due to education and skills deficits of workers that prevent them from competing for better jobs in growth sectors of the new economy. Therefore, human capital approaches focus redevelopment strategies on increasing workers' skills. In contrast, critical approaches rooted in theories of political economy associate underemployment in deindustrialized communities with larger systemic processes arising from the global restructuring of production and shifts in the international division of labor. Education is considered but one of many factors that affect an individual's employability in labor markets and that affect a community's ability to adjust and redevelop its economy. Critical education theorists hold that some forms of education may reproduce, rather than alleviate, poverty and economic marginalization.

To investigate the relationship between workforce development strategies and community revitalization, I examine a rural Appalachian community where deindustrialization has been occurring since the late 1980s and where dislocated apparel workers participated in federal workforce education and training programs after the county's largest employer, a transnational apparel manufacturer, closed in 1999. I use a qualitative case-study approach to analyze the community's socio-economic history and employment situation from 1930 to the present, and the post-industrial redevelopment strategies and workforce education initiatives undertaken from 1999 to 2003. I also examine how its displaced workers' education and employment outcomes were related, and how they were affected by the economic situation of their community and changes in the larger global economy. The data collected and analyzed include interviews with displaced apparel workers and community stakeholders, documents, archival and personal records, and observations.

To understand events and processes that affected the community and its displaced workers, the education and redevelopment strategies implemented in the community are situated within larger-scale contexts of globalization and the restructuring of work. My analysis engages several literatures including economic and alternative theories of development, and how they inform notions of the relationship between education and employment. I explain how the human capital approach gained prominence because of its assumed link to economic growth as the dominant development goal and is thus linked to contemporary workforce education policy. My critique of this approach recognizes alternative ideas of development that consider goals beyond economic growth, including broader conceptions of the purposes of education, its potential for expanding human capacities instead of simply increasing skills, and what this implies for rural community redevelopment policy.

My findings indicate that short-term training given to displaced workers under a human capital-based program is unlikely to prepare them for better jobs, and these training strategies do not enable communities to overcome their long-term structural adjustment problems, including underemployment and economic diversification. Increasing workers skills is insufficient to attract the kinds of jobs and capital investments economically marginalized communities need to change their situations. Social norms dictated expectations about appropriate jobs for both men and women, and women were tracked into training for female-dominated occupations in low-tier service sectors. Training reproduced their working-class statuses and the community's role as a site for low-wage labor. In addition, the community's redevelopment options were constrained by its historic role as a peripheral region in the world economy and this could not easily be transformed, least of all by narrowly targeted policies designed to increase human capital.

I conclude by noting that new approaches to community redevelopment must begin by addressing fundamental structural problems that cause poverty and income inequality. These approaches must include strategies that create livable-wage jobs, raise awareness among community members about globalization and its impacts, and mobilize grassroots groups to participate in re-envisioning their community's future development. Communities will need to reconceive the notion of development as having many different aspects and create education strategies to achieve multiple goals, including the development of individual and collective capacity for self-determination and directing change.

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Publication Place: 
United States -- Florida
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