A nation, short on job growth, is putting more emphasis on retraining its workers for the jobs that are available.
The cultivation of new marketable skills is one of President Bush's themes as he informally stumps around the country. Indeed, voters overwhelmingly indicate in polls that they like the retraining concept - something that will not be lost on whoever is the Democratic candidate.
At the same time, Congress is in the process of reauthorizing - and reforming - the myriad federal programs for retraining. And the nation's community colleges - increasingly the local workhorses in a national effort - are forming partnerships with businesses, trying to match students' skills to the needs of the shop floor.
The emphasis on training is a sign of the economic times. Companies merge and announce wholesale layoffs. Entire factories are moved to different countries. Business plans go awry and belts get tightened.
Some 8 million people are unemployed, with nearly 2 million out of work for six months or more.
"Increasingly, people are not working for a single industry or in the same occupation their entire lives," says Jason Walsh of the Workforce Alliance, a coalition of groups concerned about training issues. "There is a lot of churning, lifelong learning, people losing jobs, getting new ones, and learning new skills."
In the past, retraining programs were not necessarily linked to the workplace. "Much of the training that occurred was more focused on adult basic education," says Mr. Walsh. "What I think we know without a doubt is that the best training is linked closely with employers."
That's why in a recent radio address, Mr. Bush chose to highlight Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio. Owens, along with seven other colleges in Ohio and Illinois, has created Integrated Systems Technology programs that train students for skilled manufacturing jobs. The federal government, through the Department of Labor's One-Stop Centers, typically pays for tuition and books for the three- to five-month program.
"The response has been phenomenal," says Jim Gilmore, skilled trades coordinator at Owens. The latest count shows 60 students in his program, with many more showing interest.
The program's largest area of concentration is manufacturing. While unskilled labor is tending to move overseas to cut costs, skilled workers are still needed for automated production, and Ohio is particularly in need of well-trained workers in auto and other industries.
"The nice part about the WIA [Workforce Investment Act] money is that it allows the representative area, the counties or the local area, to provide input as to what they're looking for," Mr. Gilmore says. "So where manufacturing might be the big thing where I'm at, in Arizona healthcare might be the big up-and- coming thing."
In New York City, at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, the emphasis is on training Americans to replace foreign workers here on special H-1B visas, which companies apply for when there are no Americans qualified for the position. US companies using the foreign workers have paid $1,000 per worker. This money has been used for such programs as the one in Manhattan, which hopes to train 500 people in Cisco networking.
"We focus on dislocated workers - those who have lost jobs as a result of 9/11 - and minorities in general," says Rodney Alexander, director of the Institute for Business Trends Analysis at the school.
Yet even as such programs are implemented, changes are taking place. For example, the Manhattan program is not part of the congressional reauthorization of WIA, and the $1,000 fee ended last Sept. 30. (The Manhattan program, however, is part of a three-year cycle, so it will continue for two more years.)
Now, the Bush administration says it is spending $100 million on targeted high-growth information-technology areas. But workforce retraining advocates charge that the Bush administration, despite the president's rhetoric, is planning to spend less in the future. In an analysis, Walsh's group estimates that spending will fall slightly in 2005 compared with this year if the Bush administration's budget is adopted.
"We're seeing the federal government or Bush backing away from commitments to invest in these programs," says Walsh. "Something is wrong here."
Not so, says Mason Bishop, deputy assistant secretary for employment and training at the Labor Department. He maintains that the 2005 budget will see a slight increase, which includes $250 million for community colleges and $90 million for helping prisoners reenter the workforce. "Our request levels have held steady for the last three years," he says.
Mr. Bishop says the administration is now trying to reduce much of the duplication absorbing money that could be used for training. The House version of the WIA reauthorization bill includes some of these changes, but they are not in the Senate version. The differences will have to be resolved in conference.
While Congress debates, many people are being told no money is available for training, says Jason Emsellem, policy director at the National Employment Law Project in New York. "When people get to One-Stop Centers, they are told training funds are not there," he says.
What happens may make a difference to people like Lorraine Hernandez of New York. She has been in training for a medical assistant's job.
As she walks out of a One-Stop Center, she is wearing her royal-blue medical scrubs, but there's one problem: The funding for her training ran out before she completed the course work. She has applied for additional funds but has been told nothing is available.
Now, she says, "I'm worried about how I'm paying my rent."