DETROIT — ERIC RASMUSSEN works in a seedy looking place.
Abandoned automobile tires are piled high along the parking lot. The two-story brick building of the Wheel & Rim Supply Company is covered with graffiti.
But don't be fooled. This small, $5 million company on the edge of Detroit is starting to challenge its international competitors in making industrial wheels. And Mr. Rasmussen is a turnaround story himself.
Penniless and living out of his car a year ago, he is the company's quality-control manager. "My life has done a 180-degree turn," he says. Rasmussen is dramatic evidence that job training works for the unemployed.
Training programs are under scrutiny. The Bush administration argues that such programs waste two-thirds of the $18 billion a year that the government spends on them. Critics say the government should spend more - closer to the $30 to $40 billion that American business pays yearly for training.
Here in Michigan, which has one of the nation's largest job-retraining efforts, Gov. John Engler, a Republican, has scrapped the Michigan Youth Corps, saying it had not proved its effectiveness. But when programs work well, they create successes like Rasmussen. A graduate of Henry Ford Community College in nearby Dearborn, Rasmussen started working Jan. 8 at Wheel & Rim Supply, capping an extraordinary 12 months. When he got out of military service in 1984, he bounced around from job to job. "It never se emed like I was at any one place more than a year," he says. The problem was alcohol.
Last year, he was fired as a machine operator in the Detroit suburb of Farmington. Two weeks later, he lost his home. His family had already given up on him. For 10 days, he lived out of his 1980 Plymouth Horizon. "I was tired of sleeping in the car.... I realized I had to address my alcohol problem."
So he enrolled in a 14-day treatment program in Westland, Mich. Then he moved into a halfway house in Dearborn where he has lived - and stayed sober - for a year. With the help of the Wayne County Private Industrial Corporation, a local public-private service organization, Rasmussen was able to get funding for a 16-week training course to become a machinist. "It was real beneficial," he says. The training was a step up from work that Rasmussen had done before. He got five As and two Bs.
"It's real important that people keep these programs going," he says. "It's sort of the first rung on the ladder."
Earlier this year, Rasmussen was named one of the six Job Training and Partnership Act Alumni of the Year for 1992. "From a start-up standpoint, he's the best we've ever had," says Nick Billig, president of Wheel & Rim Supply.