Clinton Wants More, But Does it Work?

January 16, 1994|By GILBERT A. LEWTHWAITE

WASHINGTON. — Tammie Pettie, a young woman with a promising future as a bookkeeper, is an argument for worker retraining programs. Gary Horstmann, a middle-aged man who finds himself washing dishes part time, makes you wonder if they are worthwhile.

Together, they define a debate that will engage the nation over the coming weeks as President Clinton unveils a $3-billion worker security program and tries to push the legislation through a skeptical Congress this year.

With millions of workers facing permanent job losses rather than temporary layoffs, Mr. Clinton will seek to double spending on retraining them for new careers, switching the emphasis from unemployment benefits to re-employment opportunities.

To Mr. Clinton, revamping worker retraining is a crucial investment in the country's economic future and the key to secure employment for U.S. workers in an ever-changing labor market.

"Economic security . . . can no longer be found in a particular job," he said in a speech at the University of North Carolina in October. "It must be rooted in a continuous capacity to learn new things. That means we must have a system of lifelong learning."

He sees thousands of Tammie Petties acquiring new skills, new jobs and new prospects for the 21st century.

Ms. Pettie, 26, worked at Rite Aid and Hecht's stores before becoming a $5.50-an-hour cashier at Hechinger after graduating from Chesapeake High School in Essex in 1985. "The job wasn't going anywhere," she said.

She was laid off from Hechinger in February. In June, she enrolled in a federally funded bookkeeping course at the Baltimore County Career Development Center in Essex. On Dec. 17, she finished the program, which cost $3,000 for tuition and books. Five days later, Ms. Pettie started a new career.

She now works as a bookkeeper for Larry H. Kinard Accounting and Tax Service on Eastern Avenue, happily using her new skills. She still earns $5.50 an hour but expects a $1-an-hour raise in the spring.

"My future looks great," she said. "There are definitely a lot more opportunities now. This definitely got my foot in the door."

But skeptics point to thousands of Gary Horstmanns, workers retrained for jobs they can't find or that don't exist. They see retraining as little more than the temporary warehousing of the unemployed in programs that lead to increased frustration at federal expense.

Mr. Horstmann, 46, was one of 800 workers laid off from the Zenith television cabinet plant in Evansville, Ind., in May 1987. After 15 years as a stock worker, he was earning $7.25 an hour.

He picked up $400 in severance pay and three weeks of vacation pay, and set out to get retrained for a high-tech future.

The government paid $4,500 for him to attend computer courses at a vocational training college for two years. He failed to get his associate's degree, due, he says, to a misunderstanding about course requirements and his need to earn some money while studying. Now, three years and many job applications later, he earns $4.80 an hour washing dishes part-time.

"Retraining didn't help me any at this stage," said Mr. Horstmann, a bachelor.

"I'm still hoping. I have run into some who did retraining with me. Some were working and fairly successful, and others have run into similar problems that I have had."

Roy Mabrey, president of the Central Labor Council of Southern Indiana, where workers in electrical appliance and other manufacturing plants, aluminum works and coal mines have been laid off in recent years, said many have wound up in Mr. Horstmann's predicament. Not surprisingly, they question the value of retraining programs.

"There's a lot of skepticism about these training programs," he said. "We have enough people with enough skills here right now to probably start a city of 8,000 to 10,000 people and have every occupation covered."

Mr. Clinton proposes coordinating five major programs for workers who have lost jobs through plant closures, foreign competition, defense cutbacks and stiffer environmental standards. These currently cost $1.5 billion. He is prepared to spend $3 billion on the consolidated program once it is fully implemented in 1998, although he has not yet said where the extra money will come from.

The new service will be delivered through a nationwide network of "one-stop shopping centers" that will also distribute information on an array of other federal services currently offered to the unemployed.

No fewer than 14 federal agencies provided training assistance through 151 programs in fiscal 1993 at a cost of $24 billion, according to the General Accounting Office, the investigative arm of Congress. The result: confusion, duplication and waste.

Clarence C. Crawford, associate director of the GAO's education and employment division, urged Congress earlier this year to consolidate the fragmented "system" of assisting workers.

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