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Why Job Training Doesn’t Work

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Even in the 1990s, at the peak of free-trade fever in Washington, Congress knew that globalization would be rough on some folks. Opening the economy up to cheap imports from Canada, Mexico, and China was bound to undercut domestic industries and cost many American workers their jobs. On top of that, welfare reform eliminated or sharply cut benefits for many families. To soften the blow, Congress offered one of its favorite solutions: federally funded job training to help laid-off workers and destitute parents find a new source of income.

It made sense in theory. Manufacturing workers would “re-skill” for the Information Age economy—perhaps moving from the factory floor to an exciting career in, say, computer science—and impoverished moms would get a hand up instead of a handout. In practice, it was a failure. A 2017 study by Mathematica Research compared people who had received job training under the 1998 law, now known as the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, with a randomly selected control group. Thirty months later, the training had zero effect on earnings.

In 2022, the U.S. Department of Labor published a comprehensive study of the WIOA and a host of similarly structured federal job-training initiatives. The programs did manage to put a lot of people through training, the researchers found. And many of those people were then hired in so-called in-demand jobs. But in the first three years after training, their wages increased only 6 percent compared with those of similar workers who didn’t receive training—from an average of about $16,300 to $17,300 a year—and the effect didn’t last. In the long term, their relative wages didn’t increase at all.  

[Read: The false promise of worker retraining]

This poor track record is often attributed to ever-growing skill requirements for jobs in the fast-paced global economy. In fact, the programs fail because they’re designed with potential employers rather than employees in mind. In the case of the WIOA, the local workforce boards that decide which jobs qualify as “in-demand,” and therefore which are eligible for federal funding, are dominated by business interests—and what business wants is a steady stream of low-wage workers trained by someone else.

“In-demand” jobs aren’t necessarily good jobs. They might be the opposite, because, from an employer’s perspective, “in-demand” is another way of saying “lots of vacancies,” and sometimes employers can’t fill jobs because they expect grinding, potentially dangerous work in exchange for bad pay, meager benefits, and little room for advancement. In 2022, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued a $25 million grant for meat-and-poultry agriculture-workforce training. The poultry industry, which is notorious for its unsafe working conditions, has so much trouble finding workers that it sometimes relies on migrant child labor. A 2023 New York Times investigation found that Virginia chicken factories had employed migrant children to clean “blood, grease, and feathers from industrial machines.” (The factory owners denied knowledge of child labor. In response to the Times article, Hobart “Hobey” Bauhan, the president of the Virginia Poultry Federation, suggested that federal immigration officials were to blame for allowing migrant children into the country in the first place. Bauhan is also the chair of the state committee that sets performance standards for Virginia’s job-training programs.)

The most common WIOA training program, by far, is truck driving. From 2022 to 2023, more people completed trucker training through the WIOA than for the next nine job categories combined. Although the trucking industry has argued for decades that it faces a shortage of drivers, its hiring difficulties are arguably a function of brutal working conditions that make it difficult for trucking companies to retain their workers, resulting in annual turnover within the industry above 90 percent. Trucking firms operate this way because it’s more profitable to just keep hiring new drivers. WIOA training programs—many of which are measured in weeks, not months—provide a steady stream of workers to churn through.

The law’s defenders claim that WIOA-style training programs really do steer graduates into good jobs. They point to seemingly successful programs that train “certified nursing aides” in as little as six weeks. Certified nursing aide does sound like the entry point to a solid middle-class health-care profession. It’s not. Only 6 percent of low-income people who went through a federally funded CNA training program from 2015 to 2021 advanced up the nursing career ladder, according to an Urban Institute study. Many earn near-poverty wages.

A better way to think about certified nursing aides is as a cheaper alternative to actual nurses, who command high salaries. Many CNAs work in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, a growing share of which are owned by private-equity firms focused on generating short-term profits by slashing costs. Elder-care investors can maintain large profit margins by keeping facility staffing levels and salaries low, but that leads to burnout and turnover. It is very much in their interest to have a steady supply of new CNAs for these “in-demand” jobs.  

Unfortunately, Congress is currently considering a pair of bipartisan updates to federal job-training that would double down on the WIOA’s shortcomings. In April, the House of Representatives passed a new version of the law by a 378–26 vote, giving a bipartisan stamp of approval to the failed status quo. Meanwhile, a Senate bill introduced by Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican Mike Braun, with dozens of co-sponsors, would allow federal Pell grants for low-income students to be spent on short, WIOA-style training programs instead of on traditional college degrees. Taken together, the bills, if they become law, seem poised to expand the federal government’s investment in funneling unemployed workers into low-wage, high-turnover jobs.  

[Read: Why is the US so bad at worker retraining?]

If Congress wanted to actually fix the broken system, it would make sure that federal training programs prepare workers for jobs with living wages, benefits, and the opportunity for career advancement. Some models exist at the state level. California’s state-funded High Road Training Partnerships initiative, for example, matches workers with employers who meet standards for wages and job quality, and who commit to collaborating with workers in the design of their training programs. Many of the jobs are unionized. The UC Berkeley Labor Center studied one High Road program developed in collaboration with major health-care providers and the statewide health-care workers’ union. It found that workers who came through the program were 40 percent more likely to get promoted, with an average wage increase of 36 percent.

Labor unions are the one force that might be able to persuade Congress to reform the WIOA system instead of doubling down on it. Last month, the AFL-CIO sent a letter to Bernie Sanders in his capacity as the chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, demanding changes to the House bill. Jody Calemine, the union’s director of advocacy, told me that the legislation should give workers equal power with businesses in running local workforce boards, and ensure that the WIOA trains people for authentically high-quality jobs. Whether union advocacy succeeds at changing the bill will shed light on just how reinvigorated the American labor movement is.

The 1990s approach failed to achieve its stated goal because its focus on short-term training for “in-demand jobs” was always designed to benefit employers, not workers. The Biden administration has pushed an expansive agenda to support unions, expand antitrust enforcement, and give workers more power to demand better wages and benefits. A newer, better WIOA could bring job training in line with those ideals.

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istoner
16 hours ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Occasional paper: Fungal banking

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So in the last couple of decades we’ve discovered that many plants rely on networks of soil fungi to bring them critical trace nutrients. This is a symbiotic relationship: the fungal network can access these nutrients much better than plants can, and in return the plants provide the fungus with other stuff — particularly energy, in the form of glucose sugar, made from photosynthesis.

It turns out this relationship is particularly important for large, long-lived trees. That’s because trees spend years as seedlings, struggling in the shade of their bigger relatives. If they’re going to survive, they’ll need help.

The fungal network gives them that help. The fungus not only provides micronutrients, it actually can pump glucose into young seedlings, compensating for the sunlight that they can’t yet reach. This is no small thing, because the fungus can’t produce glucose for itself! Normally it trades nutrients to trees and takes glucose from them in repayment. So it’s reaching into its own stored reserves to keep the baby seedling alive.

Gosh that’s beautiful isn’t Nature great! Well… yes and no.

Because the fungus isn’t doing this selflessly. The nutrients and glucose aren’t a gift. They’re a loan, and the fungus expects to be repaid.



After a certain number of years, if the seedling doesn’t start producing glucose? The fungus cuts it off. No glucose, no nutrients, nothing.  The seedling then dies and falls to the forest floor and rots, and the fungal network gets at least some of its loaned material back.

— Let’s pause here for an obvious question: how does a brainless fungus make a loan?

Well… fungi don’t have brains, true. They don’t even have nerves. But fungi have networks — really, they *are* networks. If you look at a mushroom, you’re only seeing the “fruiting body” of a much bigger organism, 95% of which is underground. The real fungus is a complex web of slender strands that may reach tens or even hundreds of meters away.

Mushroom grown in a petri bowl on agar. We normally only see the fruit of  the mushroom and not the actual essential ”body” part :  r/Damnthatsinteresting

We know that fungi can send chemical signals across this network, and we know that the network can grow and change in response to those signals. And we know that a big network following a few simple rules can result in surprising emergent behaviors. (Kind of like, you know… a market.) So, at least some fungi can do some sort of basic information processing. At least some fungi have /behavior/.

So, coming back to the particular behavior in question: does this sound familiar? The fungus makes loans out of its stored capital. and if the loan isn’t repaid on time, it forecloses.

Yes: the fungus is acting like a banker: A mindless fungal network invented capitalism tens of millions of years ago.

And it underpins all the great forests of the world!

Understanding the basics of ecological succession – Eco-intelligent™

For centuries, people noticed that forests tended to expand at their edges.  Let farmland lie fallow for a few years, and first weeds would take over; then shrubs and bushes; then trees, and then bigger trees.  It might take a century or more, but field would turn to forest.  This became known as “ecological succession”.  A bunch of empirical rules were derived by observation: given this sort of soil and this much rainfall, you’d see this group of plants first, and then twenty years later this other group, and so forth.

The problem was, succession leading to forest was a bunch of observations with a big theoretical hole in the center.  Imagine a mid-succession field full of tall grass and bushes and mid-sized shrubs.  Okay, so… how does the seedling of a slow-growing tree species break in?  It should be overshadowed by the shrubs and bushes, and die before it ever has a chance to grow above them.

And the answer is, the fungus.  The forest uses the fungus to pump sugar and nutrients into those seedlings, allowing them to grow until they are overshadowing the tall grasses and shrubs, not vice versa.  The fungus is a tool the forest uses to expand.  Or — looked at another way — the fungus is a venture capitalist, extending startup loans so that its client base can penetrate a new market.

This also answered a bunch of other questions that have puzzled observers for generations.  Like, it’s long been known that certain trees are “nurse trees”, with unusual numbers of seedlings and saplings growing closely nearby.  Turns out: it’s the fungus.  Why some trees do this and not others is unclear, but the ones that do, are using the fungus.  Or: there’s a species of lily that likes to grow near maple trees.  Turns out they’re getting some energy from the maple, through the fungus.  Are the lilies symbiotes, providing some unknown benefit to the maple tree?  Or are they parasites, who are somehow spoofing either the maple or the fungus?  Research is ongoing.

Oh, and the fungus may also force the trees to make changes to their lifestyle… for their own good.  “Mycorrhiza also induce changes in the emission of plant volatiles, making them more attractive to the natural enemies of herbivores, their predators [7], and parasitoids [8], thereby providing plants with additional protection.”  Like a bank requiring that you get insurance and install a security system.

Oh, and plants can send signals through the network — for instance, that one tree is under attack by beetle grubs.  Nearby trees may start diverting energy to produce grub-deterrent toxins, which they wouldn’t normally.  We already knew plants could do that sort of thing using airborne pheromones.  Turns out they can do it through the fungus, too.  Does the fungus “charge” for this service?  Or is it gratis, a public service, a fungal 911?  Research is ongoing.

But wait: there’s more!  There are different sorts of fungi, and they have different preferences as to what kinds of plants they team up with.  (Market partition, if you like.)  Some are specialists, some are generalists.  When there are a bunch of different sorts of fungal networks present, the forest tends to be more diverse and more productive.  Competition is good, right?

Not necessarily.  An individual fungus doesn’t want to be competing.  It wants to be the monopolist, the sole provider.  So, there’s evidence that the networks push their favored species to grow higher and faster, so that they can overshadow the species the fungus doesn’t “like”.  The result may be a forest that is less diverse and productive, but that’s not the fungus’s problem.

This is one of those quietly expanding frontiers, with a steady drumbeat of new papers coming out every year.  How far can signals travel?  What other information might be carried?  How long does a fungal network “remember”?  Just how deep does the rabbit hole go?  (And, of course… is there any way to hack this for human advantage and profit?)

Depending on your point of view, you could say this all shows that banks and finance — in the very broadest sense — are not only natural but hardwired into life; something very similar has been going on, silently but profoundly, for millions of years, and it has shaped the world around us.  Or, you could say this all shows that banks and financiers could be replaced by a sufficiently large fungus.

Anyway.  The next time you take a walk in the woods… yes, the trees really are talking: that’s not poetry or a metaphor.  It’s just, a lot of that conversation probably consists of haggling with their fungal partners.  




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istoner
3 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Up

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Really feel like I'm getting back to my roots taking pot shots at creationists.


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istoner
5 days ago
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Is Microsoft trying to commit suicide?

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The breaking tech news this year has been the pervasive spread of "AI" (or rather, statistical modeling based on hidden layer neural networks) into everything. It's the latest hype bubble now that Cryptocurrencies are no longer the freshest sucker-bait in town, and the media (who these days are mostly stenographers recycling press releases) are screaming at every business in tech to add AI to their product.

Well, Apple and Intel and Microsoft were already in there, but evidently they weren't in there enough, so now we're into the silly season with Microsoft's announcement of CoPilot plus Recall, the product nobody wanted.

CoPilot+ is Microsoft's LLM-based add-on for Windows, sort of like 2000's Clippy the Talking Paperclip only with added hallucinations. Clippy was rule-based: a huge bundle of IF ... THEN statements hooked together like a 1980s Expert System to help users accomplish what Microsoft believed to be common tasks, but which turned out to be irritatingly unlike anything actual humans wanted to accomplish. Because CoPilot+ is purportedly trained on what users actually do, it looked plausible to someone in marketing at Microsoft that it could deliver on "help the users get stuff done". Unfortunately, human beings assume that LLMs are sentient and understand the questions they're asked, rather than being unthinking statistical models that cough up the highest probability answer-shaped object generated in response to any prompt, regardless of whether it's a truthful answer or not.

Anyway, CoPilot+ is also a play by Microsoft to sell Windows on ARM. Microsoft don't want to be entirely dependent on Intel, especially as Intel's share of the global microprocessor market is rapidly shrinking, so they've been trying to boost Windows on ARM to orbital velocity for a decade now. The new CoPilot+ branded PCs going on sale later this month are marketed as being suitable for AI (spot the sucker-bait there?) and have powerful new ARM processors from Qualcomm, which are pitched as "Macbook Air killers", largely because they're playing catch-up with Apple's M-series ARM-based processors in terms of processing power per watt and having an on-device coprocessor optimized for training neural networks.

Having built the hardware and the operating system Microsoft faces the inevitable question, why would a customer want this stuff? And being Microsoft, they took the first answer that bubbled up from their in-company echo chamber and pitched it at the market as a forced update to Windows 11. And the internet promptly exploded.

First, a word about Apple. Apple have been quietly adding AI features to macOS and iOS for the past several years. In fact, they got serious about AI in 2015, and every Apple Silicon processor they've released since 2016 has had a neural engine (an AI coprocessor) on board. Now that the older phones and laptops are hitting end of life, the most recent operating system releases are rolling out AI-based features. For example, there's on-device OCR for text embedded in any image. There's a language translation service for the OCR output, too. I can point my phone at a brochure or menu in a language I can't read, activate the camera, and immediately read a surprisingly good translation: this is an actually useful feature of AI. (The ability to tag all the photos in my Photos library with the names of people present in them, and to search for people, is likewise moderately useful: the jury is still out on the pet recognition, though.) So the Apple roll-out of AI has so far been uneventful and unobjectionable, with a focus on identifying things people want to do and making them easier.

Microsoft Recall is not that.

"Hey, wouldn't it be great if we could use AI in Windows to help our users see everything they've ever done on their computer?" Is a great pitch, and Recall kinda-sorta achieves this. But the implementation is soemthing rather different. Recall takes snapshots of all the windows on a Windows computer's screen (except the DRM'd media, because the MPAA must have their kilo of flesh) and saves them locally. The local part is good: the term for software that takes regular screenshots and saves them in the cloud is "part of a remote access trojan". It then OCRs any text in the images, and I believe also transcribes any speech, and saves the resulting output in an unencrypted SQLite database stored in:

C:\Users\$USER\AppData\Local\CoreAIPlatform.00\UKP{GUID}

And there are tools already out there to slurp through the database and see what's in it, such as TotalRecall.

Surprise! It turns out that the unencrypted database and the stored images may contain your user credentials and passwords. And other stuff. Got a porn habit? Congratulations, anyone with access to your user account can see what you've been seeing. Use a password manager like 1Password? Sorry, your 1Password passwords are probably visible via Recall, now.

Now, "unencrypted" is relative; the database is stored on a filesystem which should be encrypted using Microsoft's BitLocker. But anyone with credentials for your Microsoft account can decrypt it and poke around. Indeed, anyone with access to your PC, unlocked, has your entire world at their fingertips.

But this is an utter privacy shit-show. Victims of domestic abuse are at risk of their abuser trawling their PC for any signs that they're looking for help. Anyone who's fallen for a scam that gave criminals access to their PC is also completely at risk.

Worse: even if you don't use Recall, if you send an email or instant message to someone else who does then it will be OCRd and indexed via Recall: and preserved for posterity.
Now imagine the shit-show when this goes corporate.

And it turns out that Microsoft is pushing this feature into the latest update of Windows 11 for all compatible hardware and making it impossible to remove or disable, because that tactic has worked so well for them in the past at driving the uptake of new technologies that Microsoft wanted its ~~customers~~ victims to start using. Like, oh, Microsoft Internet Explorer back in 2001, and remember how well that worked out for them.

Suddenly every PC becomes a target for Discovery during legal proceedings. Lawyers can subpoena your Recall database and search it, no longer being limited to email but being able to search for terms that came up in Teams or Slack or Signal messages, and potentially verbally via Zoom or Skype if speech-to-text is included in Recall data.

It's a shit-show for any organization that handles medical records or has a duty of legal confidentiality; indeed, for any business that has to comply with GDPR (how does Recall handle the Right to be Forgotten? In a word: badly), or HIPAA in the US. This misfeature contravenes privacy law throughout the EU (and in the UK), and in healthcare organizations everywhere which has a medical right to privacy. About the only people whose privacy it doesn't infringe are the Hollywood studios and Netflix, which tells you something about the state of things.

Recall is already attracting the attention of data protection regulators; I suspect in its current form it's going to be dead on arrival, and those CoPilot+ PCs due to launch on June 18th are going to get a hurried overhaul. It's also going to be interesting to see what Apple does, or more importantly doesn't announce at WWDC next week, which is being trailed as the year when Apple goes all-in on AI.

More to the point, though, Windows Recall blows a hole under the waterline of Microsoft's trustworthiness. Microsoft "got serious" about security earlier this decade, around the time Steve Balmer stepped down as CEO, and managed to recover somwhat from having a reputation for taking a slapdash approach to its users data. But they've been going backwards since 2020, with dick moves like disabling auto-save to local files in Microsoft Word (your autosave data only autosaves to OneDrive), slurping all incoming email for accounts accessed via Microsoft Outlook into Microsoft's own cloud for AI training purposes (ask the Department of Justice how they feel about Microsoft potentially having access to the correspondence for all their investigations in progress), and now this. Recall undermines trust, and once an institution loses trust it's really hard to regain it.

Some commentators are snarking that Microsoft really really wants to make 2025 the year of Linux on the Desktop, and it's kind of hard to refute them right now.

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istoner
18 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
denubis
18 days ago
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Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal - Execute

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Click here to go see the bonus panel!

Hovertext:
Lot of people are gonna say we can't build Star Trek teleporters, but we can do the first half, which is pretty good.


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denubis
19 days ago
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kazriko
19 days ago
Reminds me of the canadian animated film "to be" (Her hair is even the same.) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KUXKUcsvhQc
istoner
19 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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Daily Cartoon: Thursday, May 30th

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“Why does it feel like we’re more nervous about the jury decision than Trump is?”
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istoner
24 days ago
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Saint Paul, MN, USA
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