Job Training - Beyond the Politics

PRESIDENT Bush has recently been promoting his "Job Training 2000" plan, first announced back in January. The plan would streamline the various federal job-training efforts, set up local skills centers, solicit greater involvement by private industry, and form partnerships with states to launch apprenticeship programs.

The administration appears to be of various minds concerning how much the proposals would cost. Estimates range from no new spending - just reshuffling current outlays - to hundreds of millions. So if dollar amounts are a measure of political commitment, the signs are unsure.

They are unsure for other reasons, too. Announcements made during a presidential election year, by an incumbent who knows he is weak on domestic concerns, are taken with a large grain of salt by reporters, and perhaps by Americans generally. But that response should be tempered.

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The president's job-training plan is a modest approach to a urgent national need. The number of Americans who could be helped by retraining as old jobs disappear is climbing fast. Some experts estimate that current training programs reach about 8 percent of those who might benefit from them - including workers displaced from longtime jobs and the poor who have never held a good job.

Federal funding for job-training programs has shrunk while demand has grown because of the recession and the slimming-down of big employers like carmakers and steelmakers.

The president's plan may not do much to expand programs, but it could do considerable good by simply eliminating the bureaucratic inconsistencies among programs.

People in the field point out that different eligibility rules, different rules on what constitutes a job-training expense, and other bits of bureaucratic red tape make government-supported programs less effective than they should be. The "one-stop shopping" approach backed by Mr. Bush is welcomed.

But when you add to displaced workers the millions of younger people who have either dropped out of high school or are about to, the problem takes on a larger dimension.

Credible solutions will have to embrace dropout prevention programs aimed at children in the elementary grades, vocational programs designed to draw those in their teens and twenties toward meaningful work, and retraining and educational options for mid-life workers whose livelihoods have disappeared.

And, of course, there will have to be some hard thinking about where funding comes from and how federal and state responsibilities are shared.

Millions of voters should take note when someone wanting to lead them through the next four years pushes a crucial issue forward. They should demand that the fleshing out of the president's program continue, and that his likely opponents put forward their own plans for salvaging the country's wasted human capital.

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