Adult vocational training

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Potential to decrease disparities

Strategies with this rating have the potential to decrease or eliminate disparities between subgroups. Rating is suggested by evidence, expert opinion or strategy design.

Health Factors  
Date last updated

Vocational training for adults supports acquisition of job-specific skills through education and certification programs, also called career and technical education, or on-the-job training. Programs may include job search assistance, personal development resources, and other comprehensive support services (e.g., child care) during training. Some programs provide participants with financial compensation for the duration of their participation. Vocational training programs in the United States usually serve individuals with little job experience or education, individuals who are unemployed, or dislocated workers.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased earnings

  • Increased employment

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Reduced recidivism

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that vocational training for adults increases employment and earnings among participants, including young adults and unemployed individuals1, 23, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12. Vocational training can help dislocated workers regain employment, but does not consistently lead to full wage recovery5, 8, 10.

Participants increase employment4, 9, 10 and earnings more than non-participating peers following program completion14, 9, despite frequent initial reductions in earnings during the training and education period. In some cases, earnings increase even when participants do not complete the program1. An assessment of the California community college system’s vocational degree and certificate programs indicates larger increases in earnings among graduates with degrees and certificates in the health care sector than graduates in other fields3. An assessment of Project QUEST, an initiative that funds health care sector training and provides comprehensive supports, demonstrates increases in participants’ earnings and financial stability in the long-term2

Job Corps, a widely implemented vocational training program for young adults that includes comprehensive support services and financial compensation, appears to increase participants’ earnings, employment, and education two years after program completion11, especially among those who complete a GED program12. Over the longer term, however, most participants’ earnings are similar to non-participating peers, except for those who were 20-24 years old when they enrolled. Job Corps also appears to reduce arrest and incarceration rates among participants11.

Comprehensive vocational training programs appear to be more effective than less comprehensive programs; an evaluation of Jobstart, based on the Job Corps model but without comprehensive support services and financial compensation, demonstrates no effects on employment or earnings13. Researchers suggest that program implementers provide workers with structured guidance in training selection, and supportive services within training once they have enrolled. Developing training programs in partnership with local employers is also recommended to ensure workers are trained in in-demand skills14.

Vocational education and employment programs for individuals who have been incarcerated may reduce recidivism15. Stringent state-level work policies implemented with welfare reforms in the 1990s appear to have reduced vocational education and training opportunities for mothers with low incomes and low levels of education16.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated potential to decrease disparities: supported by some evidence.

There is some evidence adult vocational training has the potential to decrease disparities in earnings and employment among participating adults with lower incomes. Individuals who complete adult vocational training programs increase earnings2, 4, 9, 10, 11 and employment more than non-participating peers5, 7, 10. How much earnings increase varies depending on field, with healthcare-based programs appearing to have the largest returns20. Vocational training programs can increase wages for workers from economically marginalized groups, including black9 and Hispanic participants10 and women9, 10.

What is the relevant historical background?

In the United States, apprenticeships were the dominant form of vocational training until the Industrial Revolution, when they were replaced by schools and training programs. Since then, vocational education has evolved and adjusted based on technological change and the current needs of society21. In 1917, the first law authorizing vocational education programs in secondary schools explicitly categorized the programs as training for careers that do not require a bachelor’s degree22. During wartimes, vocational training focused on developing skills rather than the educational component. World War I created the need for short, intense courses to train workers, often women, to work in factories supplying the military, and World War II continued that push, expanding existing vocational education programs to meet those needs. Following the war, the GI Bill provided funding for veterans for education and training21, though Black servicepeople were generally excluded23, 24. Adult vocational training continues to evolve based on the needs of society and the economy. With technological advancements, computers became more prevalent in the workforce, requiring advanced math and science courses or certifications, which has inspired many debates as to whether math and science courses are vocational training21.

The Vocational Education Amendments of 1976 provides funding and recognizes resources for programs that help train or retrain adults who are working toward stable employment or advancement25. Currently, grants and other funding sources for programs are accessible through the U.S. Department of Education26.

Equity Considerations
  • How can vocational education programs tailor recruitment to enroll more women and people of color? What changes can be made to be more culturally competent and to retain these students?
  • What additional supports or resources can programs provide to program participants to ensure completion?
  • How can adult vocation training programs partner with local or regional employers to ensure adequate employment opportunities after completion?
  • What underlying conditions contribute to training and skill gaps in your community? What other strategies can be implemented to address those underlying conditions?
Implementation Examples

Government-sponsored vocational training programs exist throughout the country. The Department of Labor’s (DOL’s) Job Corps has training centers in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico17, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS) funds a variety of health profession-specific programs in 21 states18. However, federal appropriations for DOL job training grants decreased by 40% from 2001 to 2017, and Department of Education grants that support career and technical education in community colleges, technical schools, and high schools decreased by 34%19.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

Job Corps - Job Corps. A U.S. Department of Labor web site.

US ED-OCTAE - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED). Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE).


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1 Carruthers 2018 - Carruthers CK, Sanford T. Way station or launching pad? Unpacking the returns to adult technical education. Journal of Public Economics. 2018;165:146-159.

2 EMC-Roder 2018 - Roder A, Elliott M. Escalating gains: The elements of Project QUEST’s success. Economic Mobility Corporation. 2018:1-58.

3 Stevens 2018 - Stevens AH, Kurlaender M, Grosz M. Career technical education and labor market outcomes: Evidence from California community colleges. Journal of Human Resources. 2018.

4 Heinrich 2013 - Heinrich CJ, Mueser PR, Troske KR, Jeon KS, Kahvecioglu DC. Do public employment and training programs work? IZA Journal of Labor Economics. 2013;2(1):6.

5 Heinrich 2013a - Heinrich CJ. Targeting workforce development programs: Who should receive what services? And how much? College Park, MD: University of Maryland School of Public Policy; 2013.

6 NBER-Andersson 2013 - Andersson F, Lane JI. Does federally-funded job training work? Nonexperimental estimates of WIA training impacts using longitudinal data on workers and firms. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2013: Working Paper 19446.

7 Audhoe 2010 - Audhoe SS, Hoving JL, Sluiter JK, Frings-Dresen MHW. Vocational interventions for unemployed: Effects on work participation and mental distress. A systematic review. Journal of Occupational Rehabilitation. 2010;20(1):1-13.

8 Hollenbeck 2009 - Hollenbeck K. Workforce Investment Act (WIA) net impact estimates and rates of return. Presented at European Commission-Sponsored Meeting, 'What the European Social Fund Can Learn from the WIA Experience,' Washington, D.C. 2009.

9 PPV-Maguire 2010 - Maguire S, Freely J, Clymer C, Conway M, Schwartz D. Tuning in to local labor markets: Findings from the sectoral employment impact study. Philadelphia: Public/Private Ventures (PPV); 2010.

10 Hebbar 2006 - Hebbar L . Vocational training for the unemployed: Its impact on uncommonly served groups. International Journal of Manpower. 2006;27(4):377-395.

11 Mathematica-Schochet 2006 - Schochet PZ, Burghardt J, Mcconnell S. National Job Corps study and longer-term follow-up study: Impact and benefit-cost findings using survey and summary earnings records data. Princeton: Mathematica Policy Research (MPR); 2006.

12 US DOL-Gritz 2001 - Gritz RM, Johnson TJ. National Job Corps study: Assessing program effects on earnings for students achieving key program milestones. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Labor (U.S. DOL); 2001.

13 YG-Program search - (YG), Interagency Working Group on Youth Programs (IWGYP). Evidence-based program directories: Program directory search.

14 Hamilton-McConnell 2014 - McConnell S, Perez-Johnson I, Berk J. Proposal 9: Providing disadvantaged workers with skills to succeed in the labor market. In: Policies to Address Poverty in America, Harris BH, Kearney MS (eds). The Hamilton Project. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution; 2014:1-13.

15 Bouffard 2000 - Bouffard JA, Mackenzie DL, Hickman LJ. Effectiveness of vocational education and employment programs for adult offenders. Journal of Offender Rehabilitation. 2000;31(1-2):1-41.

16 Dave 2011 - Dave DM, Reichman NE, Corman H, Das D. Effects of welfare reform on vocational education and training. Economics of Education Review. 2011;30(6):1399-1415.

17 Job Corps - Job Corps. A U.S. Department of Labor web site.

18 US DHHS ACF-HPOG - U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (U.S. DHHS), Administration for Children and Families (ACF). Office of Family Assistance (OFA). Health Profession Opportunity Grants (HPOG).

19 CBPP-Reich 2017 - Reich D, Cho C. Unmet needs and the squeeze on appropriations: Policymakers should continue bipartisan sequestration relief. Washington, D.C.: Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP); 2017.

20 NBER-Stevens 2015 - Stevens AH, Kurlaender M, Grosz M. Career technical education and labor market outcomes: Evidence from California community colleges. Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER); 2015.

21 Brewer 2009 - Brewer EW. Chapter 1: The history of career and technical education. In: Wang VCX, ed. Definitive readings in the history, practice and theories of career and technical education. Hangzhou, China: Zhejiang University Press; 2009:1-16.

22 Hanford 2014 - Hanford E. The troubled history of vocational education. American Public Media (APM). 2014.

23 Blakemore 2021 - Blakemore E. How the GI Bill’s promise was denied to a million Black WWII veterans. History. 2021.

24 NBER-Picker 2002 - Picker L. The G.I. Bill, World War II, and the education of Black Americans. National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). 2002: The Digest No. 12.

25 US ED-Federal Adult Education 2013 - U.S. Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education. An American heritage - federal adult education: A legislative history 1964-2013. Washington, D.C.: 2013.

26 US ED-OCTAE Grants & Programs - U.S. Department of Education (U.S. ED). Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE), Grants & Programs.