Business has few jobs for those getting off welfare A disconnect exists between speedy reform and slow employment

February 17, 1997|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

ST. LOUIS -- Five months ago, businessman Robert Shapiro became a powerful recruit in the campaign to transform welfare.

Shapiro was listening in August when President Clinton challenged every boss who had ever grumbled about public assistance to "try to hire someone off welfare, and try hard."

He called in his company's personnel planners and directed them to find jobs -- careers even -- for welfare recipients.

While they were at it, Shapiro said, they should lean on the companies that supplied his business with goods and services to do the same.

Clinton hardly could have asked for a better welfare-to-work disciple. As chief executive officer of Monsanto Co., the nation's fourth-largest chemical maker, Shapiro presides over 20 U.S. plants, a domestic work force of about 15,000 and a vast network of suppliers.

In his State of the Union address, Clinton singled out Monsanto and four other companies for their commitment to put welfare recipients to work.

So what, besides presidential plaudits, has Shapiro's crusade wrought?

So far, Monsanto has hired five welfare recipients, and its contractors and suppliers have found jobs for about 20 more.

Until it completes an assessment of its fledgling program, the company is not sure how many more of the nation's dependent poor it will be able to take on. But the number, in any event, will remain limited.

Monsanto's accomplishment may seem modest, even disappointing.

But in the view of the Clinton administration and independent analysts, the company deserves credit for making a careful, deliberate commitment to the lives and career prospects of a handful of welfare recipients.

Monsanto and other companies like it, they say, are likely to measure their ability to rescue welfare recipients from dependence in twos and threes, not in dozens or hundreds.

Those on the front lines of this national movement say a growing disconnect exists between the slow track on which welfare-to-work efforts are proceeding and the fast track dictated by the welfare reform law that Clinton signed last year.

Experts say Monsanto's experience underscores one of the difficult truths of welfare reform: Putting millions of recipients to work will require more than financial incentives, more than presidential exhortations, more than extensive training and placement programs.

It will require considerable patience because progress will be measured in tiny steps, not great leaps.

"It's like eating an elephant one bite at a time," said Blair Forlaw, whose nonprofit organization tries to match jobs and companies in St. Louis with the prospective workers who seek them. "That's very different than throwing up your hands and saying, 'We need 17,000 jobs right away.' You have to have a place to start."

Under the terms of the welfare reform law, most able-bodied adults will be required to find work within two years of receiving benefits.

According to Gary Burtless, a welfare reform analyst at the Brookings Institution think tank, implementation will require work to be found for more than 2 million aid recipients during the next five years.

For now, at least, there is little reason to believe that business as a whole has softened its resistance.

In January, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce sent a pointed message that no amount of preaching could induce businesses to bail state and federal governments and community groups out of their primary responsibility to prepare welfare recipients for work.

"It is a foregone conclusion," said Jeffrey H. Joseph, the chamber's vice president for domestic policy, "that the private sector will have a hard time absorbing these people into the work force."

On the same day the chamber issued its warning, Clinton was playing host to Shapiro and 10 other corporate executives at the White House to showcase their welfare-to-work efforts.

A few companies, such as United Parcel Service Inc. and Sprint Corp., have well-established programs with substantial accomplishments to tout.

Marriott Corp., the undisputed leader in the field, has for years hired thousands of low-skill workers from the welfare rolls, and its training program, "pathways to independence," is considered a national model.

But most of those called to the White House last month, including Burger King Corp., the job placement agency Manpower Inc. and retail giant TJX Co., are at about the same point as Monsanto. They are committed to the task of hiring welfare recipients, but their programs are either on the drawing board or in their infancy.

Even those with plenty of potential entry-level jobs acknowledge limits to their ability to absorb the thousands of welfare recipients who will be looking for work in their communities.

Pub Date: 2/17/97

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