Federal Proposals Would Streamline Support for Training

LIFELONG SCHOOLING

`WHAT we have now is ... a lot of disparate programs" to help different groups of people develop job skills, says Betsy Brown Ruzzi, associate director of the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce in Washington.

The nonprofit organization is pushing for policymakers to develop a "comprehensive strategy for all citizens," she says.

Government support for job training today includes everything from federal tax breaks for employer-sponsored course work to state-sponsored programs that lure manufacturing plants with "employer-specific skill training" programs.

The most prominent federal program is the Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, with $4.2 billion allocated for the 1992 fiscal year. The JTPA includes programs to retrain workers displaced when factories close and programs to help disadvantaged youth prepare for work. The JTPA serves 1.5 million people, but 33 million are eligible.

Ms. Ruzzi acknowledges that even with the comprehensive strategy she hopes will emerge, some groups such as the poor and displaced workers will still need targeted assistance.

One broad legislative package, sponsored in the Senate by Sens. Edward Kennedy (D) of Massachusetts and Mark Hatfield (R) of Oregon, is known as the "High Skills, Competitive Workforce Act." Its provisions would:

* Promote a system of voluntary job-skill certification standards for educational programs.

* Establish school-to-work programs that would help young people prepare to enter the work force.

* Provide grants to industry for developing better training programs and "high-performance" work organizations.

* Levy a 0.5 percent payroll tax on employers unless they spend at least 1 percent of their total wages on training.

* Make permanent the tax-exemption for employer-sponsored education of employees.

Meanwhile, President Bush has proposed a narrower bill, the Job Training 2000 Act. It aims to streamline federal programs by consolidating their administration more fully in local "private industry councils" that were set up to administer JTPA funds. That money is parceled out to states on the basis of the number of unemployed and disadvantaged residents. With this proposed "one-stop shopping" approach, individuals and employers would no longer have to contact many agencies to find out about available as sistance.

Like the Senate bill, the Bush administration also recommends a system of job-specific skills standards, which industry groups would set voluntarily. This would make it easier for schools to design vocational education and apprenticeship programs. It would also enable workers, employers, and the government to make better decisions about training investments, the administration says.

Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton has proposed requiring that businesses spend an amount equal to 1.5 percent of their payroll on job training, and to spend it on all employees, not just managers.

The Labor Department is also pushing for reforms in education so students learn basic skills needed in the workplace. The Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills (SCANS) recommends that, along with essentials like reading and math, schools emphasize problem-solving skills and working in groups.

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