Up for Reinvention: Job Retraining

White House retools programs designed for laid-off workers, but will jobs await them?. JOBS IN AMERICA

THE Clinton administration says it is eager to ``reinvent'' America's programs to help laid-off workers find new jobs.

A key goal, espoused by Labor Secretary Robert Reich, is to assist displaced workers financially for up to two years while they train for what he calls high-skill, high-wage jobs. But matching these retrained workers with actual jobs will not be easy: The administration itself notes that a year after they lose their jobs, more than one-half of all displaced workers remain unemployed or are earning less than 80 percent of their former wages.

Consider the Boeing Company, America's leading exporter and the bedrock of the economy in the greater Seattle area. The company is highly competitive, and this week it won a big chunk of Saudi Arabia's $6 billion order for jet aircraft. But competition is forcing Boeing to learn to do more with fewer people. The company is continuing planned layoffs of 27,000 workers, of which 18,000 have already occurred.

To help the displaced workers find new jobs, the company, its labor unions, and government agencies are teaming up in a project that was featured at a ``What's Working'' conference Mr. Reich recently convened.

But it is too early to tell how successful the effort will be.

So far, some workers have wound up taking jobs for less than their former salaries - a phenomenon that became typical in the recent recession. But some others, asserts company spokeswoman Laura Boudwin, recently found their technical or professional skills fetched them significantly higher salaries at MCI Corporation.

Handling big layoffs

The Boeing Dislocated Worker Project began in earnest last fall, with the arrival of a $5 million federal grant from a program designed to deal with mass layoffs. Today, the project opens a new facility in Everett, Wash., where heavy layoffs were announced this month.

Underlying the White House effort is the idea that the job market has fundamentally changed.

For example, the end of the recession has not meant the end of pink slips at corporations across America. Companies announced 108,000 layoffs in January, the highest monthly total in four years of tracking by the Chicago outplacement firm Challenger, Gray, and Christmas.

This bolsters the administration's notion that, even in an economy that is adding jobs overall, workers can now expect to make several career changes during their lifetime, with significant retraining needed at every step.

``I'm afraid that we're already seeing those predictions coming true,'' says Hermelinda Sapien, deputy director of the Center for Employment and Training in San Jose, Calif. It is a federally funded private program that Mr. Reich recently highlighted as one of 14 programs that exemplify ``what's working'' in job retraining.

Too few jobs?

An underlying and largely unanswered question is: How many high-skill jobs will the economy be creating in coming years? Is there danger of a government program spending money to train workers for jobs that do not exist, or would industry demand for skills in the workplace be fed by expanding the supply of well-trained workers?

There is evidence that educational requirements for jobs are growing, but also that over the next decade or so the economy may add about as many low-skill jobs as high-skill ones.

Boeing exemplifies broader trends in the manufacturing sector, which traditionally has been the source of well-paying blue-collar jobs.

Manufacturing will be a relatively stagnant source of new jobs, the Labor Department acknowledges. The number is expected to go upward slightly after a modest decline in the 1980s.

Services will provide the bulk of the economy's new jobs, and this sector includes many relatively low-skill occupations such as retail sales clerks, child-care workers, and waiters. But the sector also includes fast-growing professional fields such as computer programming and paralegal work.

Anecdotal evidence suggests that many occupations are seeing rising skill demands.

``We used to be able to train people in three to five months and place them in good jobs at reasonable wages,'' notes Ms. Sapien of the San Jose retraining center. Now ``the job market requires more specialized training as well as communications skills.''

People must be able to read instructions, use computers, and communicate well with customers or peers.

Also, competence in basic math skills is becoming a more important determinant of wages than it was just a few years ago, according to a study by Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Richard Murnane of Harvard University.

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