`Basic training' helps workers get rehired

LLEWELLYN BARTHOLOMEW is a big man with tattoos and muscles who has finally climbed out of the unemployment pit -- because of retraining. A high school graduate, Mr. Bartholomew came to job retraining with a plus: His basic skills were solid. He didn't crumble when reading assignments got rough during his six-week course in computerized machining at a local community college. And now he's employed at $8 an hour by Wyandotte Equipment and Tooling Company, a machine shop in suburban Detroit.

Not all displaced workers are so fortunate. Back when ``help wanted'' signs hung on factory doors, they opted for the assembly line instead of the classroom. Now they find themselves lacking the ``three Rs.''

Even with his command of reading and writing, however, Bartholomew's transition was not easy.

In 1983, Bartholomew stood ``stupefied'' outside the locked gate of Firestone's steel products plant, where he had worked for 15 years as an inspector of truck rims.

``One Wednesday, it was all over,'' he says. ``It's like you was a puppet and they pulled the last string. You hear machinery runnin', and then, all of a sudden, it's quiet and you're on the outside.''

Like many laid-off workers, Bartholomew initially didn't think much about going back to classes. His qualifications were ``nothing too much and no shop wanted to train you,'' he says. For 36 months his life was a jumble of pickup jobs that didn't pay, quests for employment out of state, months of no work, dwindling funds, and finally . . . divorce.

His rescue came from Downriver Community Conference (DCC), a nonprofit public organization that serves 17 communities downriver from Detroit. Between 1979 and 1983, the downriver area's 15 top corporations cut their work force by 61 percent, according to Kathleen Alessandro, director of DCC employment training. And Bartholomew was one of thousands that looked to the organization for help.

Following the standard DCC pattern, Bartholomew learned about r'esum'es and job interviews, and took numerous tests of aptitudes and the like. His tuition, books, and car mileage were free, thanks to Title III of the 1983 Job Training Partnership Act, which funded the program.

But the conference and the many programs like it haven't been able to help everyone.

Between 1980 and 1986, it enrolled 4,167 unemployed in retraining programs. But it could place just a little over half of them in other jobs. A major problem is that workers often lack basic skills on which retraining might build.

``We cannot re-create society, make them read, write, and retrain them'' in the year allotted, Ms. Alessandro says.

The conference used to have a basic-skills course to teach reading, writing, and computing, but it's been dropped. Both teaching and retraining had to be compressed into a year because of funding requirements, according to Lou Milley, operations manager. And that didn't leave time for subjects that should have been learned in grammar school and learning a new job. Now, laid-off workers are placed in retraining programs at their reading level with no preliminary boosts.

A joint labor-management program at Ford Motor Company is hitting the illiteracy problem head on. The Employee Development and Training Program (EDTP), of which basic-skills training is just one facet, was born in the wake of the devastating Ford layoffs (upward of 100,000 workers) between 1979 and 1982 at plants around the country. Active employees can take classes ranging from elementary subjects to graduate-level courses, some in-plant, others at college campuses.

Attendance at the basic-skills classes started at a trickle, but now it's grown. ``At first, the guys, they said, `We don't need no readin'. We still got good jobs.' Now, though, some of 'em even come in at 4 a.m. before their shift just to go to readin' class,'' one employee says.

Employees enroll for various reasons. Some are learning to read so they can read the Bible; a 62-year-old woman who dropped out of school is going back to get her GED (General Educational Development) diploma, which is equivalent to a high school diploma. Another woman wants to help her granddaughter with arithmetic homework, while a man in his mid-50s wants to read better so he can understand the bills being passed by Congress.

At Ford's San Jose plant in California, the local committee in charge of the EDTP program pulled out all the stops to get employees ready for layoff. Six months before the plant shut down in 1983, in-plant courses covered not only basic reading, writing, and computing, but also English as a second language, in hopes of preparing employees for jobs elsewhere. These courses dovetailed with job retraining.

``How they [employees] worked at the plant without English, I don't know. But they did,'' says Gary Hansen, director of business and economic development services at Utah State University in Logan. Dr. Hansen recently completed a study that assesses the value of the plant's basic adult education and retraining programs.

``By itself, the adult education did them no good, job-wise, but when coupled with vocational training, they improved their employability markedly, and this is where we really have something significant,'' he says.

Assuming, of course, that jobs exist in the first place.

``Retraining doesn't get at the fundamental problem of a drop in demand for labor,'' says Richard N. Block, director of the School of Labor and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University in East Lansing.

It's this problem that troubles Marvin Melchor. Handy with anything mechanical, Mr. Melchor leans under a car hood, listening to the purr of an engine at Precision Tune in a Detroit suburb. He used to make $11 an hour at a Ford plant, he says, but now he earns $5 an hour and must rely on his wife's paycheck to make up the difference. Program is the first rung on the ladder

But Melchor counts himself fortunate to have had any retraining at all. He had been a production checker at Ford for 3 years when his layoff came. That was in 1977, before EDTP. So Melchor settled into a dead-end job as orderly in a hospital.

But recently, EDTP sent Melchor to school for a six-week mechanics course that started him along a new vocational path. He often had to study several chapters a night, assignments that demanded a basic education.

``The program was good, but wasn't quite long enough,'' says Melchor, who wants to go back to school on his own. He sees his EDTP retraining as the first rung on a ladder to better earnings. `There's a pride factor'

It's not uncommon for unskilled and semiskilled workers who pulled in $10 to $13 an hour in the steel and automotive industries to be reluctant to retrain for jobs that pay half their former wages. A Census Bureau survey shows that between 1984 and 1985, the average wage accepted by a worker retrained under Title III was $6.20 an hour.

``There's a pride factor, too,'' says Mr. Block. A worker ``believes he's worth $13 an hour, and his life style demands that $13.''

But Utah State's Hansen brings in the bright side.

``If an auto worker goes into computer repair, you can't expect him to have the same wages at the beginning. But he is at least on a ladder that leads upward.''

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