From Training to Learning in Workforce Development: A Critical Discourse Analysis
Although labor market dynamics are highly complex, workforce development programs typically attempt to remediate unemployed or underemployed individuals through trainings focused on “soft skills,” or nontechnical skills centered on vague concepts like “professionalism.” But program participants experience these trainings as professional development sessions sparking meaningful personal growth. Using the chaos theory of careers and adult learning theory, this study focuses on five emergent discourse strands (soft skills, training/learning, applicability, community, and workforce development itself) that emerge in a sample soft-skills training program in Philadelphia, PA. By examining how soft skills are delivered, experienced, and credentialed through this program, I consider how the discourses intersecting within soft-skills trainings empower and are powered by program participants engaging in self-conceptualization through pursuing new careers. Drawing on training observations, facilitator and participant interviews, and analysis of student handbooks, facilitation tools, post-program surveys, and contextualizing documents, I explore how soft-skills credentials may enable individuals to learn by entering communities of professional practice throughout long, uncertain careers. For programs to move from training to learning, recommendations include leveraging program structures to support soft-skill achievement, strategic credentialing, supporting participant meaning-making, and contextualizing training materials within both broad professional disciplines and specific work environments.