Help for workers in outmoded jobs

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

While Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart touts his ''new ideas'' theme on the campaign trail, a group of congressmen is trying to enact one of those ideas into law.

''It's my hope that he (Senator Hart) remembers to come back to Washington to introduce the legislation,'' quipped Rep. Bob Edgar (D) of Pennsylvania in promoting an individual training accounts bill just introduced in the House by the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition. Hart has listed such a program as one of his key ''new ideas.''

First outlined by Washington economist Pat Choate, individual training accounts would provide money for retraining workers whose industries are dying or who find themselves replaced by high technology robots. The money would come from contributions made by workers and their employers.

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Aimed chiefly at workers in heavy industries, the program would ask workers and employers to pay up to $4,000 for each fund. In case of a layoff, the employee could use the fund for training in a new skill and for relocating to another region, if necessary.

The plan would be voluntary, and contributions would be tax deductible, operating as individual retirement accounts. Should a worker have no need of retraining, he could regain his contributions, plus interest, upon retirement. The employer share would revert to the employer.

The chief cost to the federal Treasury would be loss of revenue on the tax-deductible contributions. Cost estimates are rough at best, but promoters say that with up to 1 million participants, the expense would be about $72.5 million in lost government revenue for the first year.

''It embodies the philosophy of my party,'' says Rep. Sherwood R. Boehlert of New York, the Republican chief sponsor of the bill. He notes that the program would be ''voluntary, self-financing,'' and would not require ''staggering appropriations from Uncle Sam.''

Ideally, says Representative Boehlert, workers in a plant that is soon to close could enroll in skills training during their last months in the first job and move smoothly over to the next.

Individual training accounts would also have no impact on current unemployment, nor would they affect the 450,000 to 3 million estimated workers now displaced by ailing industries. Instead, it is aimed at preventing future unemployment.

Rep. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, chief Democratic sponsor, concedes that the voluntary approach would not be a cure-all. ''We recognize that it can't answer all'' of the unemployment woes, he says, but it would have appeal ''especially to the middle-income industrial worker who's just seen his neighbor lose his job.''

The program could be a ''first step'' toward more comprehensive and possibly mandatory retraining insurance for workers, the Illinois Democrat says.

''It makes a shift from the idea of job security to employment security,'' says the originator of the plan, Pat Choate, an analyst at TRW Inc., who included the concept in a book entitled ''Retooling the American Workforce.''

According to Mr. Choate, the training accounts would provide insurance ''less for one particular job and more (for workers) to have skills they need.''

However, the concept is finding little support at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), whose members have examined it and found it to be ''premature.''

''There's an awful lot of training that goes on'' at present, says Randolph M. Hale, NAM's vice-president for industrial relations. He cites a new labor-management agreement at Ford Motor Company which includes a company fund to retrain workers.

''There may not be any need for some large program,'' says Mr. Hale, adding that the consensus among a NAM subcommittee of manufacturers is that ''the problem may not be as big as some people anticipate.''

Such arguments are unlikely to persuade the training account legislation sponsors, whose districts have been hard hit by joblessness and factory closings. ''Training is the major focus'' of the Northeast-Midwest coalition, says the group's chairman, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D) of Minnesota. ''It goes to the heart of a region in transition.

''If we're going to stay competitive, our work force has to stay competitive, '' he says.

The individual training account bill goes to two House committees for consideration.

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