Texas Stamps a New Brand on Job Training Programs

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

THE Texas work force training program is so bad, said the state's comptroller John Sharp recently, that it should be ''blown up.'' While Mr. Sharp hasn't tossed any grenades yet, Texas is one of several states leading the way in overhauling a cumbersome bureaucracy that often fails to help retrain workers for an increasingly high-tech and service-oriented marketplace. Congress too is moving to revamp federally funded job training programs. This week, debate is scheduled to begin on two bills that will require states to shoulder more of the burden of teaching new skills to the unemployed and underemployed. But Texas, Indiana, and several other states aren't waiting for Congress. They see reforms as crucial to keeping and attracting industry. ''The only way to create a dynasty like the one we had in oil and gas is to invest in people and the work force,'' Sharp says. Demand for skilled workers in the computer industry, for example, is high in Texas. If the state manages job training well, Sharp predicts the Texas economy of the future will ''make oil and gas look like a barn dance.'' But Sharp isn't doing the two-step just yet. Over the next few months, he will coordinate the consolidation of 30 job training programs into one agency, the Texas Workforce Commission. Last year, Texas spent $1.6 billion on work force training, half of which came from state coffers. But according to Sharp, only 5 to 10 percent of workers know how to access available training programs. In one case, he says, the Texas Department of Human Services had 1,000 employees assigned to help welfare recipients find job training. Yet only 31 of those recipients actually got training. Similar problems exist at the federal level. Last year, the General Accounting Office found that the federal government spends more than $25 billion per year on 154 work force assistance or development programs administered by 14 agencies. The GAO said the program patchwork ''hampers the delivery of services and creates confusion for workers, employers, and administrators.'' ''We have spent over the last 30 years, hundreds of billions of dollars on these programs,'' says Mark Wilson, an analyst at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. ''Most of these programs are very ineffective.'' Today, the House is expected to consider a job training bill written by Rep. Howard McKeon (R) of California and Rep. William Goodling (R) of Pennsylvania, which will send $16 billion in block grants to the states. The Senate also wants to give states more power in job training, but it wants to spend a lot less than the House. A proposal by Sen. Nancy Kassebaum (R) of Kansas will give the states a total of $6.1 billion in block grants for job training. Bill Christopher, who directs education policies for Indiana Governor Evan Bayh (D), isn't worried about which bill passes. ''Those states that have been able to pull their programs together are going to be the ones that can take off running with whatever Congress gives us in the way of funding,'' he says. Indiana's training programs, overhauled in 1987, are based on industry needs. If the state's technical schools aren't finding jobs for at least 70 percent of their graduates, ''over three years, they either bring up their placement levels or they lose their funding, '' Mr. Christopher says. He points to recent deals with USAir and Chrysler Corp. which will bring more than 8,500 new jobs to the state. ''Those companies wouldn't have moved to Indiana without this kind of work force,'' said Christopher.

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