U.S., Europe unhappy with job training efforts

April 17, 1994|By Chicago Tribune

WASHINGTON -- Concerned that many Americans are leaving school hopelessly unprepared for finding jobs in today's workplace, the Clinton administration wants to revamp the nation's education and job-training systems by broadly patterning them after those in Western Europe.

One group, though, is starting to caution against using Western Europe as a job-training role model: the Europeans themselves.

While administration officials and U.S. economists generally acclaim Western Europe's two-track school system and apprenticeship hiring programs, more and more Europeans are questioning these institutions as youth unemployment worsens and traditional factory jobs disappear.

Moreover, they and some U.S. economists warn that because of cultural, economic and legal differences between the United States and Europe, the federal government may be unable to replicate the pieces of the European system that work.

"There has been some obvious concern that we are training the wrong people for the wrong jobs," says Padraig Flynn, the European Union's commissioner for social affairs and employment. "We fully accept that the European model has to be revisited and reviewed."

Adds Flynn aide David O'Sullivan: "I think both of us on both sides of the Atlantic are experiencing doubt. Neither of us have got it right."

Bloc has woes

A recent white paper by the European Union's central government in Brussels, Belgium, underscores the bloc's woes. In Western Europe, the paper notes, only 42 percent of teen-agers enter the labor force with the equivalent of a high-school diploma, compared with 75 percent in the United States and 90 percent in Japan.

Among "the most frequently voiced criticisms by industry, parents, social analysts, etc. . . . is the fact that too many young people leave school without essential basic training," the paper states. "Many of them join the ranks of the young long-term unemployed."

This may be news, however, to some on this side of the Atlantic. Though many Western Europeans are losing faith in their schools, President Clinton and most of his advisers appear unshaken in the belief that the European way is superior.

"While there are a lot of things the Europeans can look to us about, they have done an awful lot more than we have with respect to both education and training," says Robert Rubin, chairman of Clinton's National Economic Council.

At the administration's urging, Congress is looking to the Old World for guidance, too. Taking up a central element of the administration's job-training package, Senate and House negotiators have neared a consensus on a bill that could provide more than $1.5 billion over five years to start up apprenticeships and other school-to-work programs.

With wide bipartisan and business support, the compromise could be passed soon.

"A system to facilitate the transition from school to work is essential to developing a competitive work force for the 21st century," says proponent Rae Nelson, executive director of the Center for Workforce Preparation, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce affiliate.

Legislated system urged

According to sponsors, such a legislated system also may be essential to protecting the living standards of average Americans.

For three of every four Americans, school ends without a four-year college degree. But when it comes to equipping these people for the world of work, the U.S. education and job-training systems are roundly judged to be failing.

While appropriate for an earlier age of mass production and manual labor, high-school curriculums no longer provide students with skills that will lead to well-paying jobs. Much of this work is now being done by machines or immigrants.

Many of those who go on to trade schools also cannot find work in the occupations they've chosen because there often is no linkage between these training programs and the labor market.

As a group, these people will continue to pay a price for their lack of education. The unemployment rate for U.S. adults who didn't finish high school averaged 11.2 percent last year, while it was just 3 percent for college graduates, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The administration sees its package of education and job-training proposals as a way of narrowing this class divide.

There are three pieces to the package. One bill would set national standards for school curriculums, following the example most European nations. Another would merge six retraining programs and provide this consolidated program with $13 billion over five years to train people who have been laid off permanently for new lines of work.

The third measure is the School-to-Work Opportunities Act. Under this bill, the government would provide $300 million a year in grants to high schools that work with local employers to set up vocational classes and industry apprenticeships for high school students.

'Mandate for Change'

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