US unemployment rate drops; need for work skills persists

Today national unemployment stands at 8.4 percent, a dramatic improvement over last December's dismal 10.8 percent. The Labor Department reports that 740, 000 Americans found work last month. Nevertheless, 9.4 million others who want jobs still did not find them. Many do not have the qualifications to fill the openings they did find.Behind these hard statistics are human faces. In a five-part series beginning today, the Monitor takes a close look at some of those faces. A Monitor reporter visited job-training centers in San Jose and Oakland, Calif., and areas in and around Detroit and Washington. He interviewed program trainees and staff, and he talked with economists, scholars, and government officials to learn what is being done to get more Americans on the jobm

For several million Americans, the struggle against unemployment is not likely to end even with a national economic recovery.

Even when unemployment has been at its lowest points over the past 13 years, there have still been between 5 million and 8 million people out of work.

Today, inflation appears to have leveled off at around 5 percent, and jobless rates have been declining for most of the year. But there are still nearly 10 million people who want jobs.

A rising economy scoops up many of the jobless as the number of jobs begins to expand. But what about the people who get left behind? Many of them lack the job skills employers need.

Effective job skill training or retraining can help many of these people find jobs, according to a wide variety of experts on employment issues. And such training also may help the economic recovery, creating new jobs, some researchers say.

''Possibly as a nation (the economy) would grow more if there were more skilled workers,'' says Timothy L. Hunt, senior research economist at the W. E. Upjohn Institute for Employment Research. ''I would be hopeful that it (job training) would help,'' he adds.

Of course, job training is just one aspect of economic growth, he and other economists emphasize. Such things as monetary and trade policies are also essential elements of an improving economy, they point out.

How much can good training programs help? No one knows for sure. But the extent to which they can help depends in part on how effective the programs are.

How effective are the nation's job-training programs?

Only a few job-training programs have proved to be very effective, according to employment experts, researchers, and evaluation reports. The question now is: Will lessons learned from these successful programs be applied in the many new ones being started now?

Just as funds for job-training programs are being made available under a new federal law, the Monitor examines what experts say are among the nation's best job-training programs, the ones with proven track records.

At the same time, the Monitor has interviewed some of the trainees and listened to their hopes for the future. Among these trainees:

* In Washington, D.C., an 18-year-old, expelled from high school in the 10th grade for fighting, who got tired of sitting around home. Now he is enrolled in the Job Corps, learning cement finishing.

* In a Detroit suburb, a laid-off steelworker in an auto-related industry who took a machine-tool course but found no new job. Then he took a 10-month course in robotics and got help pinpointing prospective employers. He recently sent out 198 resumes across the United States - and is hoping.

* Here, in an area that has become almost synonymous with high-tech industries, a welfare mother who knows all too well that unemployment is part of the San Jose scene, too. But she has stopped using drugs and started a secretarial course with renewed confidence in her ability to support herself and her three-year-old son.

Others, like Atlanta mother-of-three Lynn Scott, find jobs on their own - as she recently did again (a clerical job) after being laid off due to budget cuts.

She scours the Sunday paper for want ads, and begins calling early Monday morning to request interviews. ''Normally by the third day (of interviews), I've had results,'' she says. ''You have to walk in there dressed nice and sell yourself. Jobs are out there,'' says Mrs. Scott, who is separated and lives in Perry Homes, a public housing project in Atlanta. In January she plans to enroll in a word-processing course, at her own expense, to help get a better secretarial job.

But the laid-off steelworker and the welfare mother were unsuccessful in finding jobs, even after long searches. They, and thousands like them, have turned to government-funded job-training programs for help.

Do such programs enable trainees to get jobs quicker, stay employed longer, and earn more than people who never enrolled in them?

Here are some of the findings based on interviews with more than three dozen employment and training analysts, program staff personnel, and others in and out of government, plus interviews with trainees at six job-training programs in six cities:

1. Few job-training programs have proved they make a long-term difference in the earnings and employment of trainees compared with nontrainees.

Few progams have had the kind of solid follow-up evaluation at, say, four years, that the federally funded Job Corps program for youth has had. That follow-up found substantial earnings and other advantages to Job Corps trainees and benefits to society (fewer welfare and unemployment costs, less serious crime, and more taxes on earnings) even after four years. In contrast, a just-released evaluation of another widely praised, national job-training program for youth found the advantages from training faded to practically nothing after two to three years.

2. There is little evidence that lessons learned from research on effective programs are being very widely considered as a wave of new, federally funded programs are starting up around the US.

3. Even if successful programs are copied elsewhere, there is an unmeasurable ingredient that can make the difference between success and failure. Russell Tershy, who runs a training program here, sums up that ingredient by saying of his staff's attitude toward trainees: ''We care.''

4. As new, federally funded training programs begin, there is great concern among some analysts that preference will be shown to those who least need the help.

Because the new federal Jobs Training Partnership Act (JTPA) links payment for program costs to the number of placements of trainees on jobs, some experts are concerned that those easiest to place (the ones with higher education and skill levels) will be given preference over the more disadvantaged. Department of Labor and some nonfederal employment specialists counter that the new law simply provides for good accountability. And, they say, the law gives the local political official in charge of programs in his area plenty of flexibility in deciding who to serve. 5. Federal funding for job training is still so small compared to the potential need that only a fraction of the poor and jobless can be trained, according to estimates by staff members of the Congressional Budget Office. There's room enough for no more than about 8 percent of the poor and 20 percent of the dislocated workers in such programs, they say.

Harsh as it may seem, job training in times of little or no growth means those trained are likely to find jobs only at the expense of someone less prepared, says Ernst Stromsdorfer, chairman of the economics department of Washington State University. In a growing economy, carefully tailored and well-managed training programs can help fill expanding demands for specific skills, he says.

''Even in the best-managed programs, people don't get placed very well with an economy like today,'' he adds.

The last 12 months have seen a string of dismal unemployment ''records,'' the highest measured levels since the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) began tracking these categories, including:

* Highest-ever recorded teen-age unemployment (black and white combined): 24. 5 percent last December.

* Highest black teen-age unemployment: 53 percent in August.

* Highest number of ''discouraged'' workers: 1.8 million last December. These are persons who want jobs but have stopped looking for them.

* Highest number of involuntarily underemployed: 6.8 million in January.

All of these levels have come down somewhat since then but are still very high.

About 6 million people have been unemployed for less than 15 weeks. More than 2 million have been without work for 27 weeks or longer.

Areas including San Jose, Calif., Detroit, and parts of Pennsylvania, have been hit hard by major layoffs in the auto and steel industry. In Aliquippa, Pa. , for example, city revenues have declined as taxable earnings have fallen. Fourteen of 55 city employees have been laid off; street lights and water-system maintenance have been cut back, Borough Manager Sam Coxson says.

The burden is hard on individuals, too. About two-thirds of the unemployed are not receiving unemployment compensation. It has either run out or they never qualified for it.

Sebastian Quinaca, who has not held a steady job since he came to the US in 1978, is living with friends. He gives them the $25 to $30 a month he earns on odd jobs while he is attending a course at Mr. Tershy's Center for Employment Training here, studying to become a machine-tool operator.

''I trust in God to find work,'' he says of his future, as he looks up from the milling machine where he is training. ''I like it (milling). At first I didn't understand it. Now I do,'' he says.

This and other programs visited are giving trainees new hope and confidence in themselves and their abilities. For many, it is a turning point, a time of making an all-out effort to snap the routine of long-term unemployment.

A wide variety of job-training approaches has been tried in the US in the past several years. Some have worked, some have not, research shows.

Three kinds of programs that have been shown to work, says labor economist Marc Bendick Jr. of the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan policy center in Washington, are (1) Job Corps for youth; (2) ''supported'' work for welfare mothers, which provides temporary, subsidized jobs under close supervision, followed by placement in nonsubsidized jobs; (3) job training and job-finding assistance for dislocated workers as run by Downriver Community Conference in suburban Detroit.

(A report not yet released by the US Department of Labor, however, leaves it unclear whether Downriver is having much effect. One of the evaluators thinks it is working but suggests a more thorough follow-up study to be sure.)

Due to a lack of good, long-term follow-up studies on the results of most job-training programs, ''we're not really sure whether these programs are worthwhile social investments,'' says researcher Jane Kulik of Abt Associates. Abt researchers have evaluated a number of job-training programs, including Downriver.

Mr. Bendick is very critical of federal reductions in funding for research of those job-training programs that have been operating a number of years. Some analysts complain that information from past research is not getting much of a push from the Department of Labor. But a Labor Department official says information gets out through department publications.

Simple as it may seem, most experts summarize the elements needed for a successful program as (1) a good assessment of what jobs are available or coming available soon - locally; (2) a well-managed program to train for those jobs; and (3) a good placement effort.

One cannot rely on federal or state data on job openings and needs because they are ''out of date'' and ''out of touch,'' says Marion Pines, director of the mayor's Office of Manpower Resources in Baltimore. Her office regularly does its own surveys, even calling up employers to discuss what orders are on the books and whether they have enough workers to fill them.

But even her best efforts are stymied to a great degree by a lack of federal funding, she says. Baltimore has seen a cut from about $80 million in 1980 to $ 15 million this year in federal employment and training funds, she says. ''It's horrible,'' she adds.

Much of the cuts were due to elimination of public service employment under the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA). After numerous accounts of some abuses under the program, Washington turned against it.

Some analysts favor a return to public-service jobs today. Given the state of the economy, it ''makes sense,'' says Daniel H. Saks, former executive director of the National Commission for Employment Policy.

''CETA was getting along despite a few scandals played out of proportion,'' says Sarcq Levitan of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University.

In his budget for fiscal year 1984, President Reagan asked Congress for $3.6 billion for training and employment services, but Congress approved $6.4 billion in a bill the President signed Oct. 31.

This is a time to ''be bold,'' regarding funding of good job-training programs, economist Bendick says. Americans should consider such funding ''an investment rather than a giveaway,'' he says.

The Department of Labor is taking some steps to improve the federal/state employment service operations, which act as job finders. An interstate, computerized listing of jobs not filled locally is being developed along with greater use of aptitude and skills tests to help match the jobless to jobs.

In the recent period of recession, job placements by the employment service have dropped from 4.5 million in fiscal year 1979 to about 3 million in 1982.

The service has not been remarkably successful in finding jobs, Mr. Saks says.

Some of the other avenues cited by various experts as potential help for the jobless include:

* Waiving of college tuitions to jobless workers (something an increasing number of community and junior colleges are doing).

* More union-company contracts (such as the one signed last year between the United Auto Workers and two car manufacturers) providing for training of laid-off workers and those who are likely to be laid off due to technological changes.

* Abolishing the rule, now effective in many states, which stops payment of unemployment compensation when a jobless person enters a job-training program. (This practice is prohibited under the new federal law for federally funded jobs programs.)

* Greater enforcement of equal-pay laws to boost the earnings of women.

* Providing a bigger incentive for women on welfare to get jobs by letting them keep a greater portion of their welfare check than now allowed, until their earnings reach a higher point.

Next: Training youths for jobs

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