Coming to grips with unemployment

They call it CWETA (for California Worksite Education and Training Act) and pronounce it ''sweeta.''

''It's the sweetest little job-training program in the United States,'' says a member of the California Employment Development Department.

CWETA, enacted in 1979 by the Legislature, is aimed at training and placing 10,000 people in jobs with some 2,000 employers by 1984.

Those numbers may not seem impressive when stacked up against California's current total of unemployed workers - more than 1,250,000. But in line with the old adage, ''a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,'' CWETA's goals - and what the program has accomplished so far - make it perhaps the most successful job-training program ever in terms of permanent employment for its participants.

Steve Dushay, director of CWETA, says that to date more than 2,000 workers have completed eight-week training sessions, and more than 90 percent went right into jobs. What's more, he points out, ''more than 80 percent are still with their original employers and many have been promoted.''

CWETA even ''upgrades'' its graduates, along with other employees of participating firms, once they have established themselves in entry-level jobs.

Key to the program's success, says Mr. Dushay, is that it ''starts with the employer'' and trains people only for jobs that are known to exist. Another way of putting it is that a person is not trained to do a certain job unless a job is available.

CWETA's record so far includes training and placement of 400 machinists for small- and medium-sized firms in the Los Angeles area that do subcontracting work for defense and other industries; 30 farm mechanics and welders taken from seasonal agriculture jobs and trained to do work for their former part-time bosses that keeps them occupied through the winter months; a program in conjunction with 254 California hospitals that has provided more than 1,400 much-needed nurses.

CWETA is also training more than 1,000 workers to help make offices, schools, and other public buildings energy-efficient. It sponsors a program involving 14 electronics companies in the San Francisco area in which 200 persons have been trained for and placed in entry-level jobs since 1980.

James Petromilli, project director for the CWETA-supported Electronics Worksite Training Program at the College of San Mateo (CSM), says that, by 1984, 600 people will have been ''upgraded.'' As for the training of people for new, entry-level jobs, which pay $4.50 to $9 an hour, Mr. Petromilli says that when the economy gets into gear again, ''this is really going to take off.'' (California's once-booming computer-semiconductor industry didn't feel the economic slump at first, but has slowed down in the past year.)

Each CWETA program has its own variations on the basic theme, but in each there is an employer-CWETA-trainee relationship from the start.

Most of the trainees in the program at CSM, a part of the outstanding two-year, community college system in California, are unemployed and have high school educations. They are told in no uncertain terms, says Petromilli, that ''this is not a self-enrichment, but a job-training program.'' After filling out applications, they are thoroughly tested, their work history is compiled, and they go through several interviews. A ''job-readiness assessor'' on the CWETA staff is in charge of this process. Near the end of the application process, representatives of companies who have jobs available interview the prospective trainees.

Although in most CWETA programs employees are guaranteed a job if they successfully complete the eight-week course, in this one they are not given a specific guarantee. The company employment officers do indicate whether they feel trainees seem ''sure'' to be hired, ''likely,'' or ''not likely.'' If the program directors feel an applicant can improve his or her chances by making certain adjustments - ''sometimes just getting a haircut,'' says Petromilli - the individual is frankly advised to do so.

The placement record for trainees in his project is better than 90 percent, he adds.

Training is task-oriented, and state-of-the-art equipment is used. The program makes much use of computers in the teaching process, but there is one staff instructor for every 14 students, and at any time a trainee can call on a human teacher for help. Most of the instructors come from industry, not the academic world.

Laura, a trainee at CSM, said she has been out of the work force since her child was born 18 months ago. Without a job skill she knew it was unlikely she could support herself and the baby. Now, she is acquiring a skill which will enable her to get off of welfare and which offers the opportunity for future advancement in a leading industry.

Kirk, another trainee, is a young, unmarried college graduate who was a high school teacher in the Midwest. When he was ''pink slipped'' because of faculty cutbacks, he got an assembly-line job with the Buick Division of General Motors and quickly rose to supervisory status. But that job disappeared, too, so he moved to California - where he found that two major auto assembly plants were shutting down. Now, says Kirk, he feels he can go to work for an electronics firm at the entry wage scale and expect to soon upgrade his skills to a higher-paying level.

One of the companies involved with the San Mateo program is a division of Litton Industries that produces radar tubes. A personnel executive at the company expressed great satisfaction with the quality of new workers - more than 30 so far. He said the firm gets much better workers than through the usual employment sources and that 80 percent of the CWETA people are still with Litton.

CWETA also has an on-site upgrading program at Litton which has enabled more than 20 of the company's employees to qualify for jobs such as tester or technician.

Originally funded at $25 million for three years, CWETA relies totally on state support. Even with California's tight budget in the current fiscal year, the program has been extended for a year. Dushay seys he is confident it will continue to be funded.

Asked if industries might bear some of the cost should the need arise, Petromilli and others in the CWETA program said they thought so. One company spokesmen said it was his personal opinion that his firm would find it well worthwhile.

Dr. Gloria V. Becerra, director of the California Employment Development Department, declares: ''There is no other program like CWETA in the nation.'' Obviously she and others involved would be happy to have other states copy it.

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