Getting People Ready to Work - In 20 Days

In a spartan job center here, trainer Rosa Booker strides into a class of welfare recipients and jobless people and fires off questions on the day's topic: "You and Your Attitude."

"It's important that you have meaningful interactions with others so you know what you are to do. Correct?" she prompts.

"Yes!" the class chimes back.

The job-readiness program - a mix of confrontation, cheerleading, and instruction in basic office skills - promises to whisk trainees from idleness and public aid into entry-level jobs in record time.

The program is an example of Pennsylvania's "rapid attachment" strategy, its No. 1 tool for reducing welfare rolls. In Philadelphia, welfare caseloads dropped sharply from 70,000 to just over 61,000 last year.

Experts agree such "work first" programs, modeled after a successful project in New York's East Harlem, can help many people bounce back from joblessness and welfare. Indeed, some members of Ms. Booker's class, dressed in mandatory suits and ties, appear motivated and assertive.

"This program is building my self-esteem," says Carol McKie, a public-aid recipient from the blighted Olney neighborhood. Ms. McKie, who last worked at a city shelter, wants to find "not just a job - a career."

Yet such projects, with their learn-on-the-job approach, also anticipate initial failure as workers quit or are fired and must move on to second and third jobs. Overcoming such setbacks requires confidence and resilience that many on welfare lack, experts say.

"The work-first strategy does not [always] work. You can't put everyone into one cookie cutter," says Wendell Primus of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington.

Ms. Booker frets about high-risk trainees, such as a woman who sits slumped in the rear of the class. "We bring these people in for 'rah-rah-sis-boom-bah' for 20 days," she says, "but for the hardest-to-place, if we don't stay on top of them they [are likely to] slip right back through the cracks."

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