Flat Rock, Mich. — There I was - 40 years old, out on the street with no trade. I never thought they'd shut the place down.'' That was April 1980. Donald Leitner's job loading boxcars at a chemical company in this area came to an abupt halt as the plant closed.
So he joined the ranks of America's ''dislocated'' workers - people who are not likely to get their old jobs back due to basic changes in the economy. This group accounts for an estimated 1 to 8 percent of the nation's more than 9 million unemployed.
Laid-off steel and auto workers are the most frequently cited examples of dislocated workers but probably account for only one-fourth of them, says Steven Sheingold of the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). The rest include former textile, rubber, stone, glass, food-processing, and other workers like Mr. Leitner (who now has a new job).
No one is sure how many more dislocated workers there will be before the end of the century nor, according to employment experts, the best way to train them for new jobs.
Meanwhile, $240 million in new federal funding is being made available (plus partial matching money from state and local governments) for retraining programs.
And contracts signed last year between the United Automobile Workers (UAW) and Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation require retraining programs for laid-off auto workers. Ford has enrolled 4,000 of its permanently laid-off employees in retraining programs, many of those are being trained in community colleges. GM has enrolled about 2,800.
UAW official Richard Shoemaker says the training programs have been ''well received'' by the union's members. And, he adds, they are being carried out with Ford in a ''non-adversarial'' manner.
Businesses have a ''moral obligation'' to help retrain their laid-off workers , says Marshall Goldberg, an official with the UAW-Ford training program.
By mid-November, 117,500 auto workers were still on indefinite layoff in the United States. But this figure was down from 269,400 in January, the highest level recorded by Ward's Automotive Reports since it began tracking layoffs in 1980.
There are a number of key elements to the retraining effort, according to experts. Among them are: distinguishing between people who need retraining and people who just need help finding new jobs with skills they already have; determining which skills are in demand among employers; picking the most appropriate levels of training; and finding the jobs.
One widely praised, federally funded pilot project to retrain laid-off workers and help them find new jobs is the Downriver Community Conference, located in nearby Southgate. DCC staff members helped Donald Leitner get training and find a new job as the operator of a computer-run milling machine in a small firm here.
''I like it; it's a good job,'' he said recently, standing near a milling machine in the brightly lit work area. Six months after he lost his loading job, he enrolled at a community college's six-month intensive retraining course. Two weeks after the course ended, he landed his current job.
He earns more than $7 an hour, slightly less than on his old job. But with unemployment still relatively high, he is glad to have the work. He credits DCC for helping him when he needed help.
But there is little solid evidence that DCC or other such retraining programs are accomplishing more than what laid-off workers can do themselves.
A recent evaluation of DCC by Abt Associates (which has not yet been released by the US Department of Labor) shows findings ''not as clear'' as the positive results from an earlier Abt study, says Department of Labor economist Patrick O'Keefe.
The earlier study showed DCC placed retrained workers at a rate 12 to 22 percent higher than workers who had not used the program's services. Abt researcher Jane Kulik says the latest study ran into technical problems and that a broader study is needed to show whether or not the now-expanded program is getting good results.
Some employment analysts, including Marc Bendick Jr. of the Urban Institute in Washington, contend that dislocated workers are getting more than their share of attention - perhaps at the expense of even less-trained people such as high school dropouts, female single parents on welfare, and other adults with few job skills.
The jobless in this larger group usually lack the years of work experience, the established work habits, and the references which laid-off workers often have. But, without training for new skills, many dislocated workers and many in this larger group may be left behind, jobless, in an economic recovery that scoops up workers who have the skills needed in rebounding industries, employment experts say.
There are a number of training programs for youth and welfare women that have proven effective in getting them jobs at a higher rate and with higher earnings than people of similar background who did not take part in such programs.
But not much is known about the effectiveness of job-retraining programs for dislocated workers, says Michael Bangser of Manpower Research Development Corporation, which has evaluated some kinds of job training. Abt's Jane Kulik says: ''We're not really sure whether these programs are worthwhile social investments.'' More research should be conducted to find out, she says.
Meanwhile, ''there has been a kind of panic reaction: We have to go out and get (dislocated workers) retrained,'' says Mr. Bendick of the Urban Institute.
In recent testimony before Congress, he said his research indicates there are about 100,000 dislocated workers - or about 1 percent of the nation's unemployed. These workers, he says, are people who have lost their jobs due to technological changes or foreign competition and who are unlikely to be helped by an economic recovery.
Mr. Sheingold of the CBO estimates there are many more dislocated workers - 450,000 to 750,000, or almost 8 percent of the unemployed.
''Politically,'' Mr. Bangser says, dislocated workers are ''a safe group to go after (with assistance).'' Another job-training specialist simply said of dislocated workers: ''They vote.''
In her office at DCC headquarters, in an old high school, employment programs director Freda Rutherford explains her approach to retraining permanently laid-off workers.
Good management ''is the name of the game.''
And, she says, ''you can't use one strategy. There's no magic.'' The aim is to get people back to work, she explains. ''You have to tailor the training to the individual's needs.''
Personal problems of some trainees need attention, too, she says. DCC operates a hot line for trainees to call in times of personal stress. But, she says, DCC does not try to act as educators or mental health counselors. Training is arranged, for example, at community colleges. And serious personal problems are referred to specialists. ''Know what you do, and do it well,'' she suggests to anyone trying to run a similar program.
In one large room at DCC headquarters there are a row of telephones and various directories to help trainees call and write prospective employers. In Classroom 154, down one of the locker-lined hallways, a group of laid-off workers goes through a series of mock job interviews to help them gain confidence.
One of the interviewees spoke very quietly; his shoes squeeked as he moved his feet nervously, and he nearly closed his eyes. Instructor Diana Clark, who played the role of employer, gently encouraged him to use greater eye contact, not to wring his hands, and to give less-rambling answers. She suggested he go to several live interviews, even for jobs he is not likely to get, to practice his interviewing skills.