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Retraining programs sometimes ineffective

October 28, 2002

By HAROLD BRUBAKER

Knight Ridder

Tracy Schlude hurried about her job one recent afternoon at a children's dental office in Newtown, Pa.

She took X-rays, handed tools to a hygienist and then made sure the children went home with prizes for wearing purple - the dentist's favorite color.

Working as an assistant in a thriving Bucks County (Pa.) dental practice is a big change for Schlude, who had spent 12 years as a packer of plastic coffee creamers in a Bristol, Pa., factory before it closed in 2000.

"At this time of day at my old job," she said, "I'm sweating and just waiting for my break to come."

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Schlude, 35, became a dental assistant thanks to a 28-year-old federal program that offers extended income support and job-training benefits to factory workers who lose their jobs because of international trade.

She represents the epitome of how the program is supposed to work, because she got a job in her chosen field that pays slightly more than the $12.35 an hour she earned after a dozen years at Winpak Portion Packaging.

But the overall track record of two trade-related programs - Trade Adjustment Assistance and similar benefits under the North American Free Trade Agreement - has been less than stellar, with only 56 percent of the participants meeting the goal of earning at least 80 percent of their factory wages, according to a 2000 government report.

The federal government spent $1.2 billion from fiscal 1999 to fiscal 2001 to help 107,626 workers who lost their jobs because of imports or because companies moved production to Mexico or Canada.

Over the same period, U.S. manufacturing employment fell by 1.4 million. Clearly, not everyone who is eligible for the trade-act benefits uses them.

Pennsylvania has been the biggest recipient of those funds over the last three years, with $96.27 million flowing into the state, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, which administers the programs.

A small budget

The $416 million budgeted nationally this year for trade-act benefits is just 1 percent of the $42 billion slated for all federal work-force development programs. But such benefits have been crucial to winning passage of trade legislation since the 1970s because organized labor views the benefits as protection for those most vulnerable to the negative effects of foreign trade - well-paid factory workers.

The latest federal trade law, Trade Promotion Authority, which was enacted in August, folds the NAFTA program into the Trade Adjustment Assistance program. It makes more workers eligible, increases to 78 weeks from 52 the amount of time workers can receive cash support under the program and provides a health-insurance subsidy.

The Bush administration is using the new law to focus on getting people back into the work force as quickly as possible, said Emily Stover DeRocco, an assistant labor secretary.

But critics say one of the biggest problems with the program is that it can give the unemployed as little as 30 days to decide on a career path. Many of the eligible workers are in their 40s or 50s and losing a job for the first time. Some have no idea what they want to do and quickly pick a training program without researching the job prospects in that industry.

"If you're devastated by the loss of a job, it's kind of hard to instantaneously decide what you want your career to be," said John Shinn, president of the Burlington County (N.J.) Labor Council and a staff representative for the United Steelworkers of America.

Even if workers know what they want to do, the system can be tough to get through.

"Every time you jump through one hoop, you have a higher and hotter hoop to jump through," said former U.S. Steel worker Richard Funk.

Trade-act benefits

Trade-act benefits can be generous, paying for educational programs worth up to $15,000. Because it can supply cash payments as well as cover tuition costs, it helps people train for a better job while supporting themselves at the same time.

Some advocates of these trade-act benefits call it unfair to offer special benefits to people whose jobs move to Mexico, but not to those who lose their jobs to the Sun Belt.

"Unemployed people need that kind of help, no matter why they are laid off," said John Dodds, director of the Philadelphia Unemployment Project, a labor advocacy group.

After losing the job he held for nearly 35 years at Philadelphia Gear Corp. in 2000, George Thomas used trade-act benefits to enroll in a $9,000, eight-month computer-training program at Cittone Institute in Mount Laurel, N.J. He continued to receive $430 a week in unemployment benefits.

The 57-year-old Jamaican, who came to the United States in 1963, said going back to school was a good experience. But eight months after graduation, he still does not have a job, and he received his last unemployment check Sept. 17.

Thomas' case illustrates one of the potential hitches in all job-training programs. When he chose his school, employers were looking for systems engineers with Microsoft Windows 2000 software expertise.

By the time he finished school, Windows NT had overtaken 2000 in popularity. But Thomas, a Philadelphia resident, is not discouraged. "I'll find something," he said in September.

A success story

Schlude, who traded the goggles and hair net required at the factory for comfortable, colorful scrubs, seems perfectly at home in the bright and cheery offices of Newtown Dentistry for Kids.

"I hope to be here a long time," Schlude said.

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