East Germans Flock To Retraining Programs

Skyrocketing unemployment creates high demand for few positions

ELKE J"AGER is one of East Germany's newly unemployed. But rather than sit and mope about it, as some of her acquaintances do, she has taken the future in her own hands and started a job retraining program. Mrs. J"ager is enrolled in a three-and-a-half-month course on sales management. Although the class is located at Robotron in Leipzig, once a showcase technology concern under the communist regime, the material and method used here are completely Western, including the imported teacher from Cologne.

On this particular day, J"ager and her 23 ``classmates'' are working two to a computer. They are trying to master a standard software program that will help them control the flow of goods through a company - from purchase, to storage, to sale.

J"ager hopes the course will give her a competitive edge when it comes to finding a job. One thing she's learned, ``the days are past when the state is going to do everything for you.''

From coal miner to chemical engineer, many East Germans are discovering that their training won't be needed in the new market economy, whose promise is expected to lie in the service sector, not heavy industry.

This is why, since the spring, East German officials have been racing to organize job training centers like the one at Robotron, where people can either hone their skills or set off in a completely new direction. Teachers are mostly West German, though East Germans are training to take over the instruction themselves.

The courses, which range from three months to two years, cover such areas as marketing, finance, and taxes (a favorite), health, tourism, administration, data processing, and - to rebuild the country's decrepit infrastructure - construction skills. Those who take part receive 63 to 68 percent of their previous net pay, a slightly better deal than unemployment benefits but still small, considering the rapid increase in prices here.

In all, the government is spending 160 million deutsche marks ($103 million) on the program this year, with Bonn footing half the bill.

At the beginning of the summer, there was little interest in the idea and training centers were underused. But with the unemployment wolf now at the door, there are more people wanting to sign on than there are places, says Gabriele Endert-Reinhardt, spokeswoman for the Central Employment Administration in East Berlin.

In August, 1.8 million people were either unemployed or working shortened hours at reduced pay - nearly double July's figure. Compared with these figures, the 20,400 job-training slots the government has created for the fall are a drop in the bucket. Ms. Endert-Reinhardt says the goal is 100,000 positions by year's end.

The government-organized training centers are not the only choice. Several private firms that specialize in career counseling and training are setting up shop. West German businesses trying to get a foothold here are either training East Germans on the spot or sending them back to West Germany for training.

At the beginning of last month, for instance, 100 East German applicants out of thousands began a two-and-a-half-year program at West German branches of Commerzbank, a major bank starting up in East Germany. The bank covers apartment costs and a monthly trip home for the trainees.

If the students in the Robotron class are any indication, those participating in training programs are highly motivated. Unlike in West Germany, ``one has the feeling these people will take this information and really do something with it,'' says Thomas Heckler, the teacher.

That is, if they find a job. Placement, of course, is the litmus test for job training. Officials at the local and national level say it's too early to measure placement results, because even the shortest classes won't be finishing until this month or next.

What's worrisome to them is that investment in East Germany has been much slower than expected. Job creation is minimal. If this situation doesn't change soon, J"ager may have some anxious waiting before she can put her new skills to work.

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