Training for teen-agers

Eugene Wimbush, wearing white plaster-splattered overalls over a white sweatshirt, recounted his good news: He had been hired earlier this year as a plasterer, at $6 an hour.

Landing the job didn't make any headlines. But it was good news at his mother's home, where he lives and now pays the electric, phone, and gas bills. He has also bought a color TV with remote control, and a used car.

Having a job and being able to do all this gives him ''a good feeling - a real good feeling,'' he said during a visit to a federally funded Job Corps center here, where he spent two years studying and training.

But his good feeling is something that one out of three other blacks in their early 20s do not yet have. They are jobless but want jobs. It is a feeling unknown to some 57 percent of the nation's black teen-agers (ages 16 to 19) and 20 percent of the white teen-agers who want work but don't have it.

These high unemployment rates include youths who are so ''discouraged'' that they have quit looking for jobs, according to federal statistics.

Poverty, dropping out of high school, early pregnancy, and other factors are making unemployment a ''way of life'' for many of the nation's young people, according to a report recently issued by the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation, a nonprofit organization.

The declining size of the youth labor force is not expected to ease things much because the number of disadvantaged black and Hispanic youth who will be looking for jobs is expected to rise, according to the Ford Foundation.

And unemployment at age 20 is a strong predictor of long-term unemployment in later years, according to Robert Taggart, one of the nation's experts on job-training programs for youth.

Job skill training is not enough for youth, he and numerous other experts said in interviews. Also needed, says Mr. Taggart, is a greater emphasis on teaching school dropouts and others remedial math and English. One of the most effective ways is with classroom computers. Employers expect certain levels of preparedness, he and other researchers say.

Long-term joblessness, most researchers agree, costs American taxpayers plenty. Rather than paying taxes on would-be earnings, jobless Americans may be drawing welfare benefits and unemployment compensation.

And it can cost the unemployed a lot in terms of self-respect and confidence, according to youths interviewed at two job-training programs here. But the situation is far from hopeless.

Young Wimbush's ''good feeling'' about himself and his job is something a greater proportion of the nation's jobless youth can obtain, through various kinds of training programs, many experts said during interviews.

But preparing jobless young people for work and helping them find it involves tough questions:

How much money are American taxpayers willing to invest in such an effort? And what is expected from such investments: long-term payoff or quick returns?

Both questions can be approached by looking at two very different youth job-training programs: an expensive one with long-lasting results, and another much less costly program with measurable results that fade after two years or so.

In Job Corps, a residential training program, participants stay about eight months at a cost of about $9,000 each. But four years after leaving this program, graduates are still earning more than nonparticipants, a follow-up study shows. And for every $1,000 taxpayers spend on the program, society gets back $1,500 in lowered welfare, unemployment, and criminal-related costs, over the lifetime of the participant, the study states.

A much cheaper program - privately run, federally funded, and praised by some experts as among the best of its kind - is 70,001. (It is named after one of the early government file numbers associated with the project.) For its comparatively short classroom training, this nonresidential program costs considerably less - about $2,000 per youth placed on a job. But the earnings advantage over nonparticipants fades almost completely after two to three years.

Which kind of program, if either, do American taxpayers and elected officials want to support in the future? Or, as suggested in the just-released evaluation of 70,001, is something in between most appropriate?

In its recent report, the Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation suggests trying a variety of approaches and paying attention to ''lessons'' learned from earlier pilot projects on youth-employment training.

Many kinds of youth-employment and employment-training progams have been tried in recent years, but few have had the follow-up that Job Corps and 70,001 have had to measure their long-term effectiveness.

Whichever type of program wins the most continuing public support, the old message ''you get what you pay for'' applies here, say researchers and scholars of unemployment issues.

But, says 70,001 president Larry Brown, there is also another aspect of youth training programs: instilling hope in jobless teen-agers. ''If, in a time of diminished (national) employment, we can maintain hope, we've done a good job.''

In one room of a Maryland 70,001 training center, a black binder lies open between two telephones on a desk, where trainees call to ask for job interviews. Notations by one trainee, whose grammatical errors are apparent, show the tough task of job-hunting: ''no opens;'' ''will call me back;'' ''position been fill.'' But one notation reads: ''come in fillout applic.''

A closer look at Job Corps and 70,001 shows how well either program can prepare a youth for that crucial day when an interview is granted. Eugene Wimbush credits Job Corps, a federal program started in 1964, with helping him prepare for and land the plasterer's job. For two years he studied and trained at the Potomac Job Corps Center, a collection of old brick buildings on a hill in an economically poor part of this city.

During a recent visit to the center, this writer saw trainees - young women and young men - in coveralls, climbing ladders to rig electrical wiring, on their knees learning to lay cement, or in street clothes attending academic classes. There was an air of enthusiasm, seriousness of purpose, and, for the most part, cheerfulness, among students and staff.

Job Corps participants are between ages 16 and 21. Most are high school dropouts. They come from poverty-level families. Their average reading level is sixth grade. Many have been in trouble with the law.

A combination of residential living, professional training, a staff that cares, and discipline - including worklike rules in training classes - seem to be the ingredients that make Job Corps effective. Nationwide, Job Corps accepts 40,000 trainees a year at 107 centers. Most of the participants live at the centers during the time they are in training, which averages eight months.

Having the participants live at the training centers is more expensive, but it is also the key to Job Corps's success, says Nellie Williams, director of the Potomac Job Corps center where young Wimbush trained. Such an arrangement gives the staff ''the opportunity to train the whole person,'' she says. Problems with punctuality, misbehavior, motivation, and other personal difficulties are better addressed through a residential setting, staff members say.

Job Corps has had years of strong bipartisan support in Congress.

Not every trainee sticks it out long enough to get a high school equivalency certificate or complete training in electrical wiring, plumbing, security guard, food service, or one of a dozen or so trades. And a small number is expelled for misbehavior.

A study by Mathematica Policy Research Inc. of Princeton, N.J., compared the job status between former Job Corps participants and nonparticipants of similar background, some of whom had other types of education, training, or work experience. The study found that, four years after leaving Job Corps, its participants:

* Were earning $600, or 15 percent, more a year than nonparticipants.

* Were working three weeks, or 6 percent, more a year.

* Were 4 percent less dependent on welfare and 2 percent less dependent on unemployment payments.

* Were less involved in serious crime.

In addition, 27 percent more had completed their high school education, and more Job Corps participants had gone on to college, technical schools, or the military.

Compared with Job Corps, the results in 70,001 are much more short-lived. But the program costs about one-fourth as much.

70,001 is primarily a classroom program. Participants, almost all of them high school dropouts, are offered 84 hours of instruction in remedial math, English, and other courses, and 32 hours on how to find a job, prepare resumes, and conduct themselves in interviews.

Nationally, 70,001 accepts about 4,300 youths at 53 sites, and it places about 3,200 of them in jobs. Sixty percent of those who enter the program and 80 percent of those who complete the program are placed on jobs.

Eight to 10 months after 70,001 participants leave the program, they were earning about $24 a week more than nonparticipants, a follow-up study shows. They also had a slightly higher employment rate. Sixteen percent were in school or training programs, compared with 8 percent of the nonparticipants.

But another follow-up study, just released by the US Department of Labor, shows that, 2 to 3 1/2 years after 70,001 participants leave the program, benefits are ''near zero'' compared with nonparticipants.

The authors of the follow-up study, by Public/Private Ventures of Philadelphia, conclude: ''One is left wondering whether pre-employment programs such as 70,001 are good social investments.''

But, adds one of the study's authors, Wendy Wolf: ''The program does a lot for its costs.'' The study suggests that adding other kinds of training (not spelled out in the analysis) might sustain the program's benefits for a longer time.

And, says 70,001 founder Roger Semerad of Brookings Institution, society benefits from the youths' employment and educational gains during the two years before the program's advantages begin to fade.

But, he says, the new research is ''further documentation'' that benefits don't last longer than about two years in most youth job-training programs.

70,001 is a ''valuable first step (for unemployed youth),'' says Max Elsman, the program's national director of communications. 70,001 officials are studying how to improve 70,001 to give more long-lasting results, by extending training hours, concentrating on specific job-skill preparations, and other approaches, he says.

Many youth-employment programs, some highly praised by experts, have not had the long-term follow-up analysis that Job Corps and 70,001 have had, and their benefits may not stand the test of time. Next: Retraining displaced workers

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