Training the economically disadvantaged for jobs has always been an uphill fight. Much of the task over the years has fallen to the federal government. And progress has been slow compared to the growing size of the problem. The number of structurally unemployed workers - those laid off because changing technology and manufacturing processes have eliminated their jobs - has steadily increased.
Though more than $31 billion has been poured into training for the disadvantaged under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) over the last nine years, federal officials generally agree with private labor experts that gains for the money spent have been decidedly slim.
Lack of reading and math skills is often a roadblock to training. Some recruits are unable to read bus signs to get to training sites. One federally sponsored carpentry training program had to be halted while workers were taught how to measure and add fractions of an inch.
Yet hopes in some quarters are high that the Job Training Partnership Act, which replaces CETA this fall, is headed in a constructive direction to correct some of the past inadequacies in federal training programs.
Some 8 percent of the funds, for instance, will be specifically set aside for basic education efforts. And a large percentage of those to be helped will be disadvantaged youth, the group that traditionally has had the highest unemployment rate. Training funds are to be channeled through the states, which will have to set up new coordinating councils. And business, through coalitions of Private Industry Councils (PICs) in various cities, will have more of a say in what is taught.
The aim is to spend no more than $5,900 per person, training as many as 1 million workers over the next year for jobs that will pay at least $4.90 an hour. The goal is to place about 58 percent of the trained workers in jobs. But for those on welfare, the target figure is a more modest 41 percent.
Jack Hasian, a spokesman for the Labor Department's Employment and Training division, explains that 70 percent of those on welfare are mothers. Even if they can get child care, training, and a job, they sometimes bring in less money to care for their children than they would with federal assistance.
''A very small percentage go off welfare - it's a tough nut to crack,'' Mr. Hasian says.
The fact that there will be no more stipends for living expenses to trainees, as was provided under CETA, is controversial. Some argue that an allowance of some kind beyond basic travel expenses is essential to attract those with large families who are most in need of the training help.
Yet Hasian notes that 70 cents of each training dollar under CETA went for stipends. He argues it was a major reason the program made no more progress than it did. Under the new program, he says, a minimum of 70 cents of each dollar spent will go for training.
No one disputes the fact that most new jobs must come from private industry and that business deserves a larger role under the new law than it had in the past. But debate continues over whether the private sector is really up to the job.
''One problem in the past has been that we haven't had wildly enthusiastic employer participation,'' Hasian admits.
Many businesses have found through bitter experience that trained employees can be lured away for slightly higher salaries by companies that would rather pirate workers than invest in training themselves.
''In many cities and counties you don't have any organized private-sector interest in training the disadvantaged. American business just hasn't got that tradition,'' says Sar Levitan, a professor of economics at George Washington University.
''Business has said that existing training programs are ineffective,'' says Hattie Dorothy Harlow, whose work for the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation in New York City involves school-to-work transition programs for disadvantaged youth. ''But it's one thing to point the finger. It's another to be able to do the job yourself.''