Pittsburgh pitches in to find jobs for steelworkers

Workers and businesses in the area around Pittsburgh are trying to pick up the pieces from the aftermath of an economic hurricane - the severe slump in the steel industry.

More than 30 steel companies, big and small, specialty or carbon steel, have plants in this area. Many have permanently or temporarily shut down portions of their plants.

The closures have left a swath of suffering businesses and jobless workers in this city and nearby communities. Whereas some 90,000 were employed in the steel industry in the four-county Pittsburgh region in 1979, only some 44,000 are on the payroll today, and this is after some pickup in steel sales in recent months.

So far the effort to find new employment for the remaining jobless has followed traditional lines.

''Bits and pieces'' is the phrase Robert Toy uses as he describes these efforts. Training and job search help are good ideas, the laid-off steelworker comments, ''but no one is looking at it in a broad scope.''

Now, in Pittsburgh, someone has begun looking. The someone is actually a group, called the Economic Development Committee (EDC), and its purpose is to draw a comprehensive, long-term development plan for southwestern Pennsylvania. It is made up of executives from Pittsburgh-area corporations and works through nine subcommittees.

It sounds bureaucratic, and it is. But the people involved feel this time it's different. Ben Fischer, director of Carnegie-Mellon University's Center for Labor Studies and a longtime CETA administrator, asserts that for once, a cooperative group is figuring out the problem before it slaps on the solution.

''We are developing a strategy to find out what needs to be done, and what isn't being done, and then activating it - this is all new,'' he says. Mr. Fischer calls the group ''highly organized and effective,'' but speaks of the task ahead as ''monumental.''

The number of sectors working with the EDC shows the extent of the cooperative effort. Business, government, education, and labor are working together to find out which businesses have been successful here; which are likely to be successful; how to keep, attract, and expand businesses here; and what their labor needs will be. It's the EDC's goal not only to find all of this out, but to produce ''tangible results and be of practical benefit to the region ,'' a summary about the committee reads.

The scattered training programs and counseling centers in this area are in need of the EDC's guiding hand. But meanwhile they are moving full steam ahead with their own plans.

In Allegheny County, home of the ''Mon Valley'' (for Monongahela) steel belt, unemployment hangs around 14 percent. The Community College of Allegheny County (CCAC) is gearing up for its ''dislocated workers educational training program, '' which begins this fall. It will be offered free to county residents, attempting to attack unemployment on all fronts through career counseling, specific retraining, and general education.

''The college doesn't assume you're necessarily ready to go from a metal job directly into retraining,'' says Rob Toy, who heads up the Mon Valley Unemployed Committee in McKeesport. ''They help you brush up on reading, writing, and math skills.'' The organization is famous for its active role in food banks and mortgage relief for steelworkers.

Geri Weiss, coordinator of the new agenda, can't believe the response since the college set up a hot line in April. She says more than 5,500 people have called to ask about the program, and the college is saying it can accommodate 5, 000 in the fall. So far, 3,000 have sent in applications, and the CCAC will take more through the summer.

Not all training and education programs here have sparked this kind of response.

''Steelworkers have been reluctant to come here,'' says Terry Woodcock, a training development specialist with the City of Pittsburgh. ''But a lot more are starting to come in now. They're starting to realize there may not be a future in steel.'' At the moment, Mr. Woodcock says, the city's training program has 960 people enrolled and a ''couple hundred'' have gotten jobs since October.

Training is a touchy subject around here. No one seems to know how workers should be trained. The state runs a customized training program for companies looking for workers to fill specific jobs. Other programs deal just in the general fields - such as electrical or health care, while some groom trainees for anticipated jobs - such as robotics and computer repair.

During the spring, President Reagan dropped in at the Control Data Institute downtown, where 130 people are nearing the end of an eight-month, free training course in computer repair. (One worker interviewed, however, made it clear he regards the program as not really free: ''I've been a taxpayer since high school; I've earned this.'')

''I feel fortunate to be in here, and to have been chosen. . . . I knew there was no future where I was,'' comments Peggy Roof, a former coil winder in motor repair and the only woman in the afternoon session. ''It's a lot of work,'' she says, adding that the students have to maintain a high average if they hope to get jobs.

Some of them are worried whether jobs really exist in the areas of their new training. Mary Louise Putnam, who runs the institute, insists they do - though they won't all be in Pennsylvania. Control Data, a large computer manufacturer, operates more than 40 institutes worldwide, and Ms. Putnam claims that ''we are very tuned in to (where growth is) in the computer industry.'' Three students have been hired so far, but Ms. Putnam says she has people working full-time on job placement for the students.

Ben Fischer, at Carnegie-Mellon, thinks it's important that steelworkers ''find out who they are and what careers are viable for them. The first thing you want to do is look at counseling.''

According to people trying to find work through the job search center at Community College of Beaver County, that's one reason the center is so popular. Beaver County is battling 22 percent unemployment.

''We've made known we're not just steelworkers here,'' says Robert Stewart, a laid-off steel roll turner who is using the center's free phones and 32 newspapers to look for work. ''You get an idea of what you have in your background and what you can build on. . . . Before you know it, you realize you have many talents from your past.''

The center is not structured to find jobs for people. But through free resume and cover letter writing classes, mock interviews, and seminars on ''discovering what you're best at'' and ''the hidden job market,'' people out of work say they learn the skills it takes to look for work.

''Who knows how to look for a job when they've been in a job for years and years?'' asks Roger Strauss, who has been using the services at the center regularly. Since last summer, when the center started, over 2,000 people have trooped through. The staff knows of 126 who have found jobs. But since there is no job reporting requirement, probably many more found work.

Nonetheless, it is tough to find a job in this region - even when you've had training and are getting help. What will become of the many people who are not training and whose extended benefits will run out by the end of the summer?

Ray Christman, head of the human resources subcommittee of EDC, believes the economy will improve and some will be recalled or find work. Second, ''I hope that some of the other efforts we've had under way will continue to create new jobs.'' One of those efforts is a private development group trying to attract new companies to the area. Last year it lured 25, along with 1,023 new jobs.

These leaders also see government granting further extension of unemployment benefits. ''If we aren't going to have an insurrection, I imagine more extended benefits will occur,'' a University of Pittsburgh professor comments.

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