Retrain Them for What?

REG MURPHY

January 08, 1993|By REG MURPHY

A chief executive officer surrounded by a world of technological change convenes a meeting of his direct subordinates. He warns them that their company must undergo drastic and immediate change. He challenges them to help cut costs, reorient the company and boost profits -- all while acting in a humane way.

''I think we should start by conducting a big worker-retraining program,'' one of his vice presidents says. ''We need to phase out two whole departments where the technology really is ready to do the work. We just don't need as many people as we used to.''

Good idea, they all agree. Humane. Respectful of people who have given the company many productive years. Maybe some employees would find even better jobs elsewhere. Besides, it fits perfectly with the economic strategy which seems to be emerging from President-elect Clinton's transition team. There probably would be some federal dollars to offset the retraining costs.

The CEO places his fingertips together, leans back in his swivel chair, furrows his brow and asks, ''Retrain them for what?''

Silence. Prolonged silence. Painful silence. The rustle as someone moves uneasily in a cushioned chair. The participants have a sudden need to read something on their notepads. Eyes down, waiting for someone else to speak.

Alas, nobody is speaking very loudly about what sort of training would be productive in a land already awash in goods and services but sadly lacking in jobs for people displaced by a world in transition. Outplacement firms line up to try to help displaced workers find new employment. Training schools abound for those who glimpse new futures. Whole university complexes stand ready to help teach new skills for workers. But there are more people ready to fill the jobs than there are vacancies.

The promise of retraining programs runs the risk of becoming a cruel hoax. It simply is not practical to believe that a man or woman who has worked in a blue-collar job for most of a career is going to don the white jacket of a life-sciences professional. Nor is it humane to tell all these workers that their problems will be behind them after a 10-week course in computer technology.

All that notwithstanding, there is one massive training program which the nation could undertake and turn it into a success. The nation needs to teach its people how to read better than they are able to read now.

Perhaps 20 percent of American adults cannot read well enough to give their children bedtime stories, never mind reading manuals skillfully enough to qualify for new jobs. In Baltimore, 200,000 adults have trouble filling out forms; some of them are unable to identify which bus to catch to get to work.

For whatever reason, they came out of school without the skill to understand the most elementary instructions. Some just didn't pay attention because it didn't seem important at the time. Some had teachers who were lax or unconcerned. And some were late bloomers who need the help now. It probably would be instructive to know how they got to this state, but in the long run something else matters more: They have to know how to read if they are going to be successful in the 21st century.

So the nation confronts a serious crossroads. It will be spending billions of dollars in a humane and economic effort to assist the 7 percent of Americans who don't have jobs and the millions of others who won't have them in the future. The land likely will be dotted with training institutions promising gold at the end of the rainbow for anyone who completes a course in bio-geo-socio-physio-electro-hydro-gizmo school. Let us all hope it works.

It would be refreshing, however, for a congressman to introduce legislation to get at the problem of pitiful reading skills. Costly, yes. Extravagant, no, if done right.

Adults in Baltimore who really try are learning to read reasonably well in 6 to 12 months. The cost is less than the $5,000 or so spent on youngsters in area high schools. Some are coming off the welfare rolls and some off the unemployment lines. Not all, mind you, but a fair percentage.

All the government resources being spent in Central Maryland are less than a couple of million dollars a year. Some private money also is being raised, particularly from the McCormick Company. A few people who subscribe to a special program contribute dollars every time Cal Ripken hits a home run. Labor unions have cooperated in some businesses.

It makes one shudder to think of all the bureaucracy which could be created by a bungled literacy program. Yet there is a worse nightmare: People going to retraining programs with no ability to read and comprehend the materials being handed them.

Given the fact that the nation voted for a president who pledged a worker-retraining program, and given the further fact that people who cannot read cannot cope with the 21st century, it would seem that the mission is clear.

Otherwise there will be no answer to that overriding question: ''Retrain them for what?''

Reg Murphy is the former publisher and president of The Baltimore Sun.

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