On the Job Training and Mentorship: Economics v. Social Responsibility

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  1. Avatar aaron david says:

    My company does a massive amount of OJT. In fact we don’t hire for specific technical skill sets anymore, we hire based on customer service backgrounds. Theory being that it is in many ways easier to teach necessary skills to start someone working than teaching them how to talk to people.

    This is also because the specific skills need for technicians are few and far between compared to the numbers needed. Unlike law school grads and adjuncts. As the number of college educated people increases, the number of jobs unfilled that specifically need a degree falls, and it becomes a sorting mechanism unnecessary to the actual function of the job. Also, the pay required to hire college educated people often takes away from monies that could be used for training. In other words if it costs 20k to train someone up to basic skill level, but I need to spend that on first year salary, that person had better come fully trained.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to aaron david says:

      I don’t think it is completely dead but it is largely dying. Maybe it will survive in some fields more than others. I don’t think anyone would dream of letting a doctor perform surgery right after graduating from medical school. We do (and always have) let lawyers hang their own shingle as soon as they pass the bar.* I used law as an example because it is what I know. Jaybird is not a lawyer and commented about how young people in his field are not receiving OJT anymore or not as much.

      *This is probably a remain of the pre-law school days when would be lawyers would clerk for licensed attorneys for their education and then be admitted to the bar in a few years. The clerking presumably taught them what they needed to know about practicing law. Practicing law was much less complex in the 19th century though. Europe still has some variants of being an apprentice lawyer for a few years. Some states are more liberal about this than others. California has a few limits on stuff a junior lawyer can do. Junior lawyers can’t try Capital cases for example for either side. Nor can they be the lead attorneys on a class action for a few years IIRC. Other states let bar-licensed attorneys do whatever they want.Report

  2. Avatar Chris says:

    If on the job training was once common, was this because businesses were irrational and didn’t realize they were making horrible financial decisions, or because there was a good return on the investment in the aggregate?

    Also, is there evidence that on the job training has become less common across industries, or is only some industries or occupations, and were those industries or occupations ones where on the job training was once the norm?Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:

      The first paragraph questions are hard to answer because on the job training might have been the product of a particular set of business and social circumstances. Maybe there was an aggregate benefit or maybe there was just an idea that it was something you did. Maybe a bit of both. There was also an age in recent history when life-time employment or near lifetime employment was a rule over an exception. My dad has had three jobs in his legal career. I know people who graduated law school four years ago who are already on job three or four.

      There is also another discussion on changes in the economy where people wonder whether companies are too focused on quarterly results and short-term profits instead of thinking long-term. I have seen this discussion numerous times and for numerous industries.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Chris says:

      I once wrote that my GF had a very traditional path: Prestigious undergrad, a few years in consulting and development, prestigious MBA, a few more years in consulting, and then a mid-management job at a large company.

      Vikram remarked that even this path is becoming less common for a variety of reasons so things are changing even at the top.Report

    • Avatar Will Truman in reply to Chris says:

      I’ve been known to get on my high horse about this, but truth be told almost every job I’ve had had been willing to train when reasonable. Even when employment ads taken out suggest otherwise. So I don’t know how much of it is ultimately perception and maybe what employers would really like versus what they actually take and do.Report

      • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Will Truman says:

        How is this a problem for job-seekers though? People can only act upon the information that they get and see and if all the outward stuff seems to indicate that training won’t be given, why should people assume training will be given?Report

        • Presumably, if you don’t have the precise skills that you need and they’re not willing to train you, then they won’t hire you. Most of the time, people hired are people with inside track. In other words, they’re willing to train but only if they have reason to believe that you can be taught and have reason to believe you’ll be “worth it.”

          Which doesn’t do a whole lot of good if you’re on the outside looking in, but it’s also not quite the same as “Companies don’t train.”

          When I used to send out resumes, I tended to define the experience/knowledge requirements liberally. I’d sort of try to explain in my cover letter why how the skills and experience I did have were pertinent to the job in question. Basically somewhere in between “only apply for jobs where you meet all of the requirements” and “Apply for everything!”

          I can only speak for my own industry and experience, of course.Report

        • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Saul Degraw says:

          I know that in the software engineering world, most applicants barely pay any attention to the requirements listed in the posting. They’re typically nonsense and they’ve been nonsense long enough that most applicants treat them as nonsense and most employers aren’t bothered by this. It’s a weird equilibrium, but it seems like all sides understand how it really works.

          Computer software is another area where lots of OTJ training (or at least OTJ self-learning) goes on. A lot (I won’t say “most”) sensibly run shops will hire an experienced software engineer with a good track record on different platforms on the assumption that experienced software engineers become competent with new languages and new platforms fairly quickly. That being said, they’re typically not going to assign somebody to train you–you’re expected to come up to speed on your own. But you don’t necessarily need to walk in the door ready to sprint.Report

          • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Troublesome Frog says:


            A while ago I was listening to a podcast on why there were not so many women in tech. One theory was that women largely pay close attention to the words in a job posting and guys do not.Report

            • Avatar Troublesome Frog in reply to Saul Degraw says:

              That could be part of it. It’s a very weird way to do business, but it’s what we’ve settled on. The job posting asks only for applicants who personally invented the transistor. Everybody who can sort of read and write and has enough fingers to count to 10 applies. Resumes are forwarded to technical people who make reasonable decisions about who to bring in and the original job posting is forgotten.

              My wife also does both hardware and software engineering, so I have at least some insight into the gender imbalance. The bottom line is that women aren’t treated with very much respect. At worst it’s outright hostile. At best, they’re swimming against the same subtle cultural biases that exist everywhere. When people think of a stereotypical techie, the image they get in their mind isn’t all that far off from the image the typical techie gets when they think of a techie. Women aren’t part of that image yet, so at a glance, the first assumption is that they’re not the real deal.

              When our new Texas Instruments applications engineer showed up, the first thing our board designer asked her was if there was somebody technical he could speak with. From what my wife tells me, that gets old after a while.Report

    • Avatar Autolukos in reply to Chris says:

      In the specific case of lawyers, it seems very plausible that cheaper document storage and transmission along with a glut of recent law school graduates has made a formerly competitive practice uncompetitive with the kind of low-cost remote option described in the OP.Report

  3. Avatar j r says:

    Two things:

    1. What the heck does this post have to do with economics?

    2. This:

    In contrast, today’s law firms are moving legal operations and many low-level attorney tasks to West Virginia to reduce costs.

    is not “in contrast” to this:

    My legal ethics professor said that when she started out, associates at her firm were assigned a partner as a mentor. The mentor would review everything the associate wrote line by line and give suggestions, improvements, etc.

    Have law firms stopped mentoring their young associates or have they simply started hiring fewer associates and outsourcing some of the more mundane tasks that associates used to do. If it is the former, then you may have a point. If it’s the latter, then there is no contrast; it’s just two separate issues.

    I guess that I have a third thing, as well. What does this post have to do with social responsibility? Are you arguing that law firms have a responsibility to hire associates and pay them six-figure salaries to do things that someone without a JD could do just as well?Report

  4. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    A couple of quick thoughts…

    1. I confess that I’m dubious that on the job training has gone the way of the dodo, unless the world has changed rather startlingly in the four years since I retired.

    2. I think that what you’re describing in West Virginia is not necessarily an example of companies not doing OJT. If one law firm used to do X, Y and Z in the past, but now because of specialization three different firms do X, Y and Z respectively, it’s still likely that each does some level of OTJ for their particular specialty. Just because one firm only does lower level stuff doesn’t mean that they don’t train employees, any more than it means that the firm that no longer does those takes in-house no longer trains for the tasks is still does do.

    3. Mentorship is a learned skill, and it’s one that not everyone does or does well — but that was just as true 30 years ago as it is today. Not everyone in my father’s day mentored others, and frankly not many were chosen to be mentored. I think it’s the same today. Lot’s of people *do* get mentored these days. In fact, a lot of organizations have formal voluntary mentorship programs and encourage people on both ends to participate in them. These programs are developed in college and university biz schools that are seen as a silly waste of educational facilities by young attorneys who wish more organizations did mentoring. 😉Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Tod Kelly says:

      1. You are the Rip Van Winkle of Industry 🙂

      2. No, these are full-service firms that decided to send all routine matters and stuff like billing to West Virginia to be handled by employees. The lawyers handling the routine stuff are called “staff attorneys”. They are explicitly not partner-track. The job descriptions are very clear that these lawyers will only do X, Y, and Z and serve under all other lawyers at the firm. These are not new firms springing up in West Virginia and approaching big firms saying “we will handle the boring stuff”. Now plenty of people might like the low-stress staff attorney positions, all the power to them.

      3. I will agree that this is true. Most of the mentorship I’ve gotten has been “Follow this document that I wrote previously as a template and good luck.”Report

  5. Avatar Kazzy says:


    Would more people going to college make it more or less likely that folks receive on-the-job training?

    Because my thinking is that part of the reason on-the-job training was offered was because there were fewer people who met event he bare minimum of standards for a given job. So employers figured, “Well, he’s the only one with a degree. He ain’t perfect but he’s the best we go so let’s bring him up to speed.” But now many more people have a degree. And if we give even more people degrees, than employers are likely to think, “This guy isn’t perfect? Keep looking. There are thousands of XYZ graduates a year!”Report

    • Avatar Richard Hershberger in reply to Kazzy says:

      College rarely trains you for whatever job you end up with. This is less true today, as colleges have come to embrace the vo-tech training school model, but it still is typically the case that you come to the new job with the background necessary to quickly learn the skills specific to the job.

      The problem is when no employer is willing to take the newly minted member of the work force. This is a problem from both sides. The prospective employee can’t get a job without experience, and can’t get experience without a job. The prospective employer eventually finds that there aren’t any experienced applicants out there.

      This isn’t merely hypothetical. Anecdotally, we have seen articles over the years about specialized machine shops and the like, with the owners complaining about how they can’t find qualified job applicants. Sometimes it turns out that they are offering comically low wages, but sometimes the problem is that no one is willing to train anyone. The fear that the now-trained employee will promptly go somewhere else is a legitimate concern, but there is no good reason this needs be an insurmountable problem.Report

      • Avatar gingergene in reply to Richard Hershberger says:

        In my industry it is common that any of the job-transition benefits you are given (moving expenses, signing bonuses, contract-buy-outs, etc.) are repayable if you leave or are fired for cause within a certain time frame (1-2 years is typical). The same is true for tuition reimbursement programs. Couldn’t on-the-job training be structured similarly? i.e. “We’ll train you at a cost of $X, which we’ll absorb if you stick around for Y years after the training ends. If you leave before that, you pay us back.” (maybe pro-rated, depending on how long Y is.)Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to gingergene says:

          I don’t see why not. I would support something like this as long as the company absorbed the losses in case of termination, lay-offs, restructuring/mergers, etc. I can even see other companies agreeing to pay the remainder if an employee was worth it.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Kazzy says:

      Part of this is yes. A lot of jobs that we assume are white collar today and come with specialized degrees used to require a lot less education in the past. Journalism is a good example of this. Until the mid-20th century, most reporters were not college educated except if the area of journalism was seen as requiring a degree of posh like high level political journalism. The typical route was that you graduated from high school and got a job working a beat of some sort and worked your way up. The same was true for a lot of white collar work. If you were a low level salaried worker, you wouldn’t need a degree. This began to change after World War II.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kazzy says:

      I think the answer is that it depends.

      Richard correctly notes that a lot of colleges and universities are adding vocational and technical classes in fields like technical writing, marketing studies, etc. Many students do go for these programs. I honestly don’t know how much a marketing studies program prepares on for a career in marketing. The answer seems to be mixed.

      There are other fields where training has not led to programs directly for undergrads. All the copy writing schools that I know of are directed at college grads. Does anyone know of an Advertising Studies program at a university? I consider marketing and advertising as being related but different.Report

  6. Avatar zic says:

    You can go to our state’s community college and study to be a plumber, an electrician, a boiler technician, and a host of other ‘skilled’ trades.

    But you cannot, upon graduating, get a license to practice that trade on your own; you still need to work for a master, doing an apprenticeship. More importantly, you can work for a master without the assoc. degree and accomplish the same thing, provided you can pass the required licensing-board tests. (This will vary by state, of course.)

    So I think there’s more OJT going on than you want to give credit to happening; it’s just happening less frequently in large corporations. As baby boomers retire, I expect we’ll see some labor shortages that will increase the amount companies are willing to commit to training. I expect we’ll see a lot of worker perks develop that people currently think have vanished forever.Report

  7. Avatar Burt Likko says:

    While I agree that there’s a whole shit-ton of FYIGM in the legal industry, I’m less certain that there is as much of it in other sectors of the economy. I frankly have little basis to know one way or the other; the lenses with which I get to glimpse other industries are all, by virtue of the way I get to look into them, skewed. No one ever comes to me with a working, functional, problem-free company to let me study how it works. I’m called in to solve very serious and immediate problems.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


      I don’t really care about whether firms choose to do the kind of West Virginia inshoring for routine matters that used to be done by junior associates in the bigger offices.

      What I do care about is senior partners waxing nostalgic about the decline of mentorship while off-shoring or only deciding to hire mid-levels. You can inshore/outsource but don’t wax nostalgic for the old days if you aren’t mentoring as you were mentored.Report

      • Avatar Burt Likko in reply to Saul Degraw says:

        That’s what I mean by FYIGM. “I got mentored when I was a young lawyer, but damn if I’m going to take time away from my billable hours and rainmaking to mentor the likes of YOU. That’s someone else’s job, something to be done with someone else’s money.” I don’t know how much more FYIGM you can get than that.Report

        • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Burt Likko says:


          Got it.

          The only people I know who are being mentored are really being mentored by their parents so it is a kind of ‘This is going to be yours own day, son or daughter…..”

          Interestingly I think a lot of local bar associations are panicked about declining memberships but they are not able to do what is necessary to get more members (i.e. get lawyers to hire associates and/or mentor)Report

  8. Avatar Dand says:

    Are you seriously complaining that companies are relocating middle class jobs to West Virginia? The decline of coal has really hurt the economy there and they can use all the help they can get. I look forward to the next article suggesting that the only reason West Virginians vote Republican is racism.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Dand says:

      Saul is complaining about people waxing nostalgically about how they were trained but refusing to train new employees themselves.Report

  9. Avatar Dand says:

    This is really more evidence of my belief the upper middle class liberal concerns about inequality are nothing more than jealousy of those with more, when you complain about middle class jobs being created in an impoverished part of the country at the expense of upper class jobs in a booming part of the country you clearly don’t care about those less well off than yourself. Moving jobs paying $130,000 out of San Francisco should also ease the pressure on the housing market there.Report

    • Avatar LeeEsq in reply to Dand says:

      I’ve heard people argue that the real concern about child labor in the early 20th century was really so adults could earn higher wages rather than having to compete with children that would work for less. Nobody could really think that it was morally wrong for children to work long hours in factories, fields, and mines. It had to be because adult laborers wanted more money.

      Saul repeatedly stated that moving things to West Virginia makes good economic sense and all boon and benefits to people at their new jobs. What Saul is complaining about, as I’ve noted above, is baby boomers waxing nostalgically about getting training at their job but refusing to train any new employees themselves. See his little exchange with Burt.Report

  10. Avatar Kolohe says:

    In the article, a senior partner makes this observation about hiring lawyers in West Virginia to do the everyday tasks: “Instead of hiring a $130,000-a-year new lawyer, we get these people for less than half that number.”

    I wonder how much of it (due to technological change and the current state of the legal profession) is “Instead of hiring a $65,000 a year paralegal in our own downtown office, we’re able to get a fully credentialed JD in Timbuktu for the same price.

    It also seems to me the mentoring/talent development problem is self solving. Eventually, all the old fart partners are going to retire – at the least, they’re going to die (I’ve known too many lawyers that should have retired long before they wound up exiting their practice feet first). But big money clients are going to want big money talent, so the marketplace is going to self-correct somewhere.Report

    • Avatar Saul Degraw in reply to Kolohe says:


      Re: Paralegal.

      Maybe a little but not that much. Big law firms really would hire new associates and have them do almost nothing but document review for their first two or three years. One firm called Quinn Emmanuel markets itself to recruits by saying “You won’t have to wait years before you do something interesting….” This was fine when money was pouring in because of sub-prime and other stuff but as soon as that stopped a lot of big clients said they were not paying to train junior lawyers anymore.

      The second one is what a lot of people are waiting for and I think in multiple industries. I’ve certainly seen a lot of “When are the boomers going to retire….” speculation in many fields and the answer seems to be when they die. You are correct on your observations on lawyers who should have retired before they went feet first. Yet I suspect that a lot of boomers have not saved enough or don’t want to cut back on their lifestyles for retirement.*

      *I suspect that most Americans don’t save enough (myself included) because why save when you can enjoy the money when you are healthy. Thirft is not that fun and I think we lost the part of Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic that declared work is good and we should save save save. We have lost the Puritan part that believed in profit but found luxury vile. It takes a special kind of soul to say “I make X and will spend like I make half as much”Report

  11. Avatar Damon says:

    I, for one, have received a lot of OJT. Frankly, when I was hired into the industry that I now work in, as a 24ish year old dude with one year work experience, a Masters, and a BS, my boss was more interested in whether I knew how to use Excel than anything else. She told me I wouldn’t be any good to her for two years. Why? Because we only did certain tasks every quarter and I needed about 8 quarters to get proficient. So my first year of work was basically learning how to do finance for this particular company. That didn’t include all the on line training and testing that was needed to be complaint with all the regulatory burdens of my industry. That alone, STILL, takes 10 hours a year, and I’m subject to audit on any one of them. And, of course, every time some corporate idiot gets it in his head that we should switch to a new financial system, a new procurement system, etc., there’s a lot of training going on there too….Report