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Identifying Drive is Critical to Job Retraining Initiatives

When it comes to retraining displaced workers, President Trump hit the bull's-eye on a target at which few politicians take aim.

“Let's invest in workforce development and let's invest in job training, which we need so badly,” he said January’s State of the Union address.

Retraining is needed badly, which will become increasingly evident as technology displaces jobs in field after field. The need to constantly upgrade skills has become a reality among professionals as well as factory workers.

Can we teach old dogs new tricks? Yes, we can. If you can learn one thing you can learn another, as David Ranson, director of research at financial consulting firm HCWE & Co., has told me many times.

How should it be done? It’s an important question and, fortunately, there is a model for retraining that has already succeeded at Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins University. There, Steve Hanke, professor of applied economics, teaches a class on finance for those wishing to pursue a career in the world of money. So far, the program boasts a 100 percent placement rate for its alums at Wall Street’s top firms such as Morgan Stanley, Credit Suisse, and Goldman Sachs.

Hanke’s approach is different from that at other institutions. He takes students from a variety of disciplines and ages. In the simplest terms, it means that the class demographic doesn't comprise only students of the same age or similar prior qualifications. “Some were graduate students from the writing seminar,” says Hanke. “In one particular case, there was a runner from the floor of the mercantile [exchange], who was writing poetry and had no trading background or finance knowledge.”

Another non-traditional finance student is 16-year-old Tal Boger. His book on investing, The Inside Scoop: Kids' Sweet Journey to Investing Knowledge, was published last September. “I started investing when I was 7 years old,” he says. “About a year ago I looked for something to do with finance.” He wrote to Hanke, and now he is helping the professor, among other things, with a database.

Another young man, statistics Ph.D. student William Hua, decided he wanted a career as a quantitative analyst and so joined the course. “There was a steep learning curve, especially given my background, which didn’t include economics, accounting or finance,” he says. But that’s where having a diverse class helped. "The undergrads could help me with the accounting and the finance.”

There’s also Hesam Motlagh who now, along with Hanke, teaches the class once a week. He started as a student while finishing his molecular biophysics Ph.D. He says Hanke runs the class like an investment firm with various tasks doled out to different students. The ultimate goal is to help hone analytical and communication skills. “Publishable quality is the name of the game,” says Motlagh. "Eventually, the students get to the point where they’ll debate the merits of a particular stock with Hanke."

Clearly, all the students are bright, which has to be an advantage for the teachers. But is that enough on its own, and what can be learned about retraining?

First, being smart isn’t enough, at least for the Hopkins course. Above all else, Hanke looks for drive and motivation. Put another way, do those wanting to study have the will to succeed?

It should be clear that drive is certainly the key factor for anyone switching careers whether through choice or due to happenstance. A steelworker likely has the intelligence to retrain as, say, a nurse, where there is plenty opportunity. Success will revolve around a person's drive and determination. That’s true in any field.

But identifying that drive is where some retraining programs may fall down.

“The problem is that the world today is in a check-the-box modality,” says Hanke. “That is not the way I do things.”

Indeed, checking the boxes is something that most of us suspect recruiters do when scanning a resume. Sometimes the results aren’t exactly top-tier, with fine candidates rejected and subpar ones admitted.

Selection of the right people is the key to success for both the potential student and the teacher, he says. Of course, the motivation is a key part of identifying whom to pick.

"Now that we are in this gig economy, now that we have disruption, we have to get people on board with the idea that you can be retrained," he says. "If we don’t, then we have a problem."