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America's Blue-Collar Blues: Is More Job Training the Answer?

White House favors it, but Republicans call plans too expensive

By Amy KaslowStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 9, 1995



HAGERSTOWN, MD.

MERLE KEEFER works as an engine repairman at the Mack Truck plant in Hagerstown, Md. A 33-year veteran of the company, Mr. Keefer has had little more than basic lessons on how to read a blueprint or a wiring diagram, skills that would make him a more valuable employee. The company has refused to take on the added expense of training, he says.

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Keefer is one of millions of working-class Americans who have suffered an erosion of wages or, worse, have been squeezed out of an economy that is increasingly oriented toward education and skills.

At the Mack Truck plant, so few of the floor's 900 employees have been trained well enough to keep pace with the constantly updated machinery that when the knowledgeable workers are absent, it's a problem.

''Forget it,'' Keefer says, ''the assembly line could stop.''

During these weeks of White House-congressional angling over the 1995-96 budget, President Clinton is pushing measures designed to boost skills and job opportunities for this burgeoning portion of the nation's labor force. But Mr. Clinton is up against budget-cutting lawmakers who say White House plans are ''big government'' and too costly.

Republicans seek savings with cuts in federal scholarship programs and the imposition of market-rate interest on student loans. They call Mr. Clinton's plan to afford vocational or college education to more youths a subsidy the government can no longer afford. To many in the GOP, the president's proposed private-sector training programs invite Uncle Sam's interference in the marketplace.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich, often called the Clinton Cabinet's ''social conscience,'' says Washington is mired in tireless political debate. ''I'm not suggesting ... increasing job training and affording student loans is a magic bullet,'' Mr. Reich told reporters at a recent Monitor breakfast. But the measures are an essential start, he says.

How can the White House expect to finance these investments in training and education without raising taxes? Reich has a ready response: With Washington's help, business and individuals can take on the task. He says extending worker-training tax credits to businesses will ''help prepare their employees for the technologically driven economy.'' And Clinton has fashioned a tax cut targeted at working families ''that doubles as an incentive for education.''

Keefer, who meets with management twice a month as one of the Mack Truck plant's skilled-trade representatives, says government incentives may lure his superiors into programs they have long resisted. ''We've been fighting for years for more training, and they've always had excuses.''

He charges that his management's only sign of upgrading the skills of its work force was to hire a consulting firm at $2.6 million for 40 weeks ''to tell them how to run things more efficiently.''

''We're like all the other companies that are downsizing -- we're cut to the bone for manpower, so the company can't afford to have six or eight guys in school for production,'' Keefer says. But while his company ''tries to do more with less,'' it could easily boost productivity with training. ''Knowing what we're doing, we might take half an hour to fix something instead of a couple of days.''

Decline in wages

The most recent Labor Department statistics show a continuation of the 20-year decline in wage earners' living standards. During the past year, consumer prices climbed 2.8 percent, while the median income for wage and salaried employees rose a meager 1.9 percent. Those with limited education and skills have been the hardest hit.

''Workers like those at the Mack Truck plant need to be trained in areas around the production line -- not just for the widget,'' says Harold Raveche, president of Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, N.J.

Referring to the Clinton program for tax incentives and federally funded programs, Mr. Raveche contends that ''the problem with Clinton and Reich is that they think government has to be everywhere.'' Ultimately, markets have to determine their own needs and meet them: ''Government should be a catalyst, not a social engineer,'' he says.

Mack Truck is a part of United States industry that is lagging behind, says Phyliss Eisen, senior policy director for the National Association of Manufacturers. Increasingly, she says, industry ''believes their work force is their competitive edge,'' pointing to the $50 billion-a-year American business already spends on training. In 1990, 5 percent of manufacturing companies offered training, today that number is upward of 25 percent.