A New Beginning

The United States is making a fresh start in tackling the issue of how best to help the unemployed get jobs. Some of the old ways of responding to this issue have been thrown out, replaced by ones that are largely untested.

With 9.4 million people unemployed, these responses are not just a political exercise. Finding the best ways to get more people working affects everyone - from the most happily employed to people so discouraged from long joblessness that they have given up looking for work, and postponed their dreams of a home, a car, and sometimes just adequate food.

The employed pay taxes that support public job training and welfare that helps the most needy. The unemployed are the focus of a new federal program that began Oct. 1, the Jobs Partnership Training Act.

Backed by an initial $3.6 billion for the first nine months, the new law is aimed at helping at least some of the poor prepare for and obtain jobs. Both its supporters and its critics see the law as a major opportunity to help put more Americans back to work. But no one is sure how the law will be carried out.

Some key questions about this law already are emerging. Among the unemployed poor, will those needing the most help be passed over in favor of those needing less? And will the most effective kinds of training be offered?

The new law, unlike the old one, leaves many of these decisions to local officials - and business leaders.

Almost everyone who looks at the level of unemployment today agrees the most effective remedy is a healthy economy. But even in the best of times there have been large numbers of unemployed - and the numbers have been increasing in recent years.

Most experts agree that effective job training for the unemployed is also essential.

On Oct. 1, under the Jobs Partnership Training Act (JTPA), the US made some sharp breaks from the past in how to go about training low-income people for jobs.

For instance, local business leaders now have veto power over spending plans for employment training. They, along with the chief elected official in an area, must approve plans which are then submitted to the state's governor.

Under the old law, business leaders had only an advisory role, and about a third of them did little of even that, one study shows.

Second, specific job-placement requirements have been established. That is, to qualify for continued federal funding, a local training program must place a certain percentage of its trainees in jobs. One new requirement: 58 percent job placement for adults.

Under the old law, no such targets existed.

In addition, stipends (payments to trainees while in training) have been sharply reduced under the new law as opposed to the old law.

Finally, the new law makes no provision for paying the salaries of people in public-service jobs.

Under the old law, using funds to pay for people on local government payrolls , for example, was not only possible but encouraged. However, abuses under the program (paying people for doing little work or for jobs federal officials felt should be paid for by local governments) led to growing criticism of this provision. With the decline of federal funding for public-service jobs over the past several years, total federal spending on employment training fell sharply - almost at the same time as unemployment rates were rising sharply.

Each major change enacted by the new law has some people happy and others concerned.

Interviews with a wide range of employment and training specialists in and out of government found:

* Some officials praise the expanded role of community business leaders and hope they will provide responsible oversight. But there are concerns that these volunteer business leaders are not familiar enough with details of effective training programs and, perhaps, too busy to find out.

* There is relief that specific job-placement requirements are being used to provide program accountability. But there are predictions that, under such requirements, programs will accept only the most job-ready people in order to have a high job-placement rate. The least-prepared people will be left behind, some say.

* Some specialists say that less spending on stipends for trainees means more money available for training. But there is the opposite view that, without stipends, the poorest of the unemployed will not be able to ''afford'' spending time in training as opposed to, say, looking for odd jobs to help pay bills.

* Some cheer the end of federally funded public-service jobs because, they say, the jobs were a waste of money. But others look back at the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA), and say that most of the public-service jobs provided important work experience for jobless Americans, and that such jobs could add needed employment today.

But much of the debate centers on who will be trained.

''The decision on who to serve is clearly vested in the local level,'' says Department of Labor economist Patrick O'Keefe, an acting deputy assistant secretary who helped design the JTPA.

''You do not want to enroll in the program individuals who have no potential, '' he says. Nor should those be enrolled who would get jobs without such training, he adds.

''There is a balancing act,'' Mr. O'Keefe says. But will the lesser-prepared poor be passed over in favor of the more prepared - a process known as ''creaming'' - because programs are trying to meet job-placement standards?

''There is always the possibility,'' he says.

Marion Pines, director of the Mayor's Office of Manpower Resources in Baltimore, says the new programs can be rewarded (with cash bonuses) for training some of the least job-ready. The people most in need ''are not going to be excluded'' under JTPA, she says.

Most other employment-training specialists interviewed for this series are not so sure.

''JTPA is very biased against the hard-core (the unemployed poor who need a lot of help before they can get a job),'' says Bernard Anderson, director of the social sciences division of the Rockefeller Foundation.

''Those who need the help most are going to be neglected'' because of a lack of stipends for trainees and an emphasis on job placements, predicts Sar Levitan of the Center for Social Policy Studies at George Washington University.

Nineteen employment-training academicians and policy experts, including Professor Levitan, issued a unanimous statement recently on JTPA, warning of the dangers of creaming and suggesting some solutions.

The National Council on Employment Policy statement said: ''Creaming the most employable from the eligbile population (of jobless poor) will result in higher placement rates, but less real impact on individuals or the local economy.''

Sorting out the more qualified from the less qualified should be done - but both should be helped, including those needing remedial education prior to specific job training, the statement said.

Some JTPA funds should be used (the council recommends 15 percent) for the purchase of micro-computers and other training materials to teach remedial education. And the military should be required to accept 10 percent of its enlistments from the graduates of JTPA-funded remedial education programs, it says.

Gordon Berlin of the Ford Foundation says, ''Ten years of research experience suggest the biggest payoff in employment and training progams comes from training the least employable.'' They have the most to gain, he says. He, too, cites the advantages of remedial education as a step before training in a specific job skill.

At Job Corps, a federally funded employment-training program for youth, remedial education has made a dramatic impact. At one Job Corps location, reading levels improved 11/2 grades, and math levels improved one grade after participants received 90 hours of remedial education, Mr. Berlin says.

These specialists note that current federal spending on adult basic education is only a fraction of what it will be under JTPA. Using some JTPA funds for remedial education would boost the employability of many of the poor, they say.

But JTPA's focus is on jobs. The law reads: ''The basic return on the investment (federal funding) is to be measured by the increased employment and earnings of participants and the reductions in welfare dependency.''

If people need remedial education before job-skill training, will they get both kinds of help under JTPA? And who among the unemployed poor will get specific job training? With programs just now being set up, it is too early to be sure, but there are a few indications.

Baltimore officials are making a special effort to train some of the least job-ready people.

But in Oakland, Calif., Roy Miramontes, who directs a job-training program for women on welfare, says that JTPA's placement requirements have forced him to start screening out some less-qualified applicants.

In Atlanta, John Clendenin, president of BellSouth, says: ''The JTPA is not a remedial-training program.'' The goal of the new law is to put people on jobs, he says. Mr. Clendenin is the new chairman of Atlanta's Private Industry Council (PIC). Under the new law, PICs have veto power on how JTPA money is spent locally.

Does he see a danger of ''creaming''? Entry into training should be based ''on the chance of success,'' he says. The programs are ''not intended to give false hope to people. That may sound a little crass and cruel,'' he says, adding: ''I don't think anyone fancies this (JTPA) to be an answer-all.''

How well are the PICs likely to perform? Under CETA, when they had only advisory power, about one-third ''worked very well,'' another third did very little, and the other third ''were so-so,'' says Randall Ripley, a political science professor at Ohio State University. He cited findings from a study on 25 PICs. Whether they perform better now remains to be seen.

But will PICs and others involved choose the most effective kinds of programs to fund?

This series has focused on what experts say are among the best employment-training programs. Only a few programs have shown they help the trainees achieve long-term results (such as higher earnings, more frequent employment, less welfare) much better than unemployed people can achieve on their own, a variety of experts say.

They complain that not enough effort is being made by the federal government to highlight programs that have worked. And, they say, the follow-up study, to be conducted on a national basis, will be too broad to determine which specific programs work best.

A guide to resources for job-training information

1. ''Guide to youth employability'' (descriptions of model programs and recommendations; available mid-February; cost not yet determined). Public/Private Ventures; 1701 Arch St.; Philadelphia, Pa. 19103.

2. Analysis of curricula using classroom computers for remedial education and source lists. Free brochures. Remediation and Training Institute; 206 King St.; Alexandria, Va. 22314.

3. Youth programs:

Job Corps; US Department of Labor; Room 6434; 601 D St.; Washington, D.C. 20213.

70,001; 600 Maryland Ave. S.W.; West Wing; Washington, D.C. 20024.

4. Displaced workers retraining: Downriver Community Conference; 15100 Northline Rd.; Southgate, Mich. 48195.

5. Results of ''supported-work'' programs. Manpower Demonstration Research Corporation; Three Park Ave., New York, N.Y. 10016.

6. Adult training: Center for Employment Training; 425 South Market St.; San Jose, Calif. 95113.

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