U.S. Worker Training Program Seeks Expansion

Congressional Democrats want to expand a government program that pays to retrain workers who've lost their jobs because of foreign trade. Currently, the program helps manufacturing workers. Democrats want to expand it to cover service workers, but President Bush has vowed a veto.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

For decades, the government has run a program that re-trains manufacturing workers who lose their jobs to step up trade and foreign competition. Now, Democrats want to extend the help that manufacturing workers get to people who work in service fields such as software design or call centers. But the Bush administration says expanding the program is unnecessary and expensive. The president has threatened a veto.

NPR's Frank Langfitt reports.

FRANK LANGFITT: The program has one of those dry Beltway names: trade adjustment assistance. But laid-off workers in small towns like Lenoir, North Carolina, say they couldn't live without it.

In recent years, furniture companies there have sent thousands of jobs to China. For the workers left behind, the program has helped pay for schooling, re-training, even rent for up to two and a half years.

Alvin Kirby(ph) lost his job at Broyhill a couple of years back. When he went to the local community college for remedial education, he finally had to admit what he had hidden from co-workers for decades - he couldn't read.

Mr. ALVIN KIRBY: When I came down here, I didn't know more (unintelligible). I didn't know A-E-I-O and U, and sometimes Y, and sometimes W - I didn't know any of that.

LANGFITT: But after 17 months, he's reading at a second-grade level. He hopes to make it to fourth grade. And that, he says, should be enough to help him land a well-paying job as a pipe fitter.

Mr. KIRBY: If I can get good enough after this, then I'll be able to go and, you know, plumbing. And if I go to a house to plumb it, I could be able to write down what I need and then I could be able to go to the store and tell the guy what I'll need to buy.

LANGFITT: And you can't do that right now?

Mr. KIRBY: Well, I have to keep it all in my head.

LANGFITT: Senator Max Baucus, the Montana Democrat, is pushing a bill to extend the benefits manufacturing workers like Kirby enjoy to service workers.

Trade assistance was created in the 1960s, long before the word outsourcing entered the American lexicon. Under current law, only workers who make a tangible product can get help. Baucus says that restriction is out of date.

Senator MAX BAUCUS (Democrat, Montana): That's not fair. That's not right, especially when about four-fifths of the workplace in America now is in the service industry. So, my gosh, if we're going to have trade adjustment assistance, clearly, those who work in service industry should also be provided for.

LANGFITT: And there's a political reason for doing so as well. Public opposition to free trade is growing. One way to dampen it is to make sure workers who get whacked by globalization also get help.

Sen. BAUCUS: We want to make sure that people do these jobs in account of a trade deploy. They get some direct assistance. That way, I think, Americans are more willing to buy into free trade agreements.

LANGFITT: Last year, 60,000 new workers received trade assistance. Extending it to service workers could more than double that number and cost another $2 billion over the next decade.

The Bush administration is fiercely against expanding the program. Officials point out that service workers can already collect up to six months in unemployment payments. And they have far more job opportunities than manufacturing workers.

Diana Furchtgott-Roth used to be chief economist with the Labor Department. She says that while manufacturing work continues to dry up, the economy adds thousands of new service jobs every month.

Ms. DIANA FURCHTGOTT-ROTH (Former Chief Economist, U.S. Department of Labor, Bush Administration): An unemployed worker in a call center, for example, would be able to find another job. But you don't find any in manufacturing. The auto industry wouldn't - worker would need a complete change in skills.

LANGFITT: When Furchtgott-Roth mentioned call center workers, she could have been talking about Dave Hilderbrand(ph). He lost his job in a Seattle call center in 2005 after his duties were outsourced to the Philippines.

Under the new legislation, he probably would have been eligible for trade assistance. He wishes it had been in place.

Mr. DAVE HILDERBRAND: I would be able to actually go to school, get a degree in something. I could probably get something a lot better.

LANGFITT: But unlike many manufacturing workers, Hilderbrand had other options. Seattle still has lots of call center jobs. In fact, Hilderbrand got another one that pays him four and a half dollars more an hour.

Some people might say, wait a second, you actually were able to get a better job - better paying job within a couple of months, so the government doesn't have an obligation to help you.

Mr. HILDERBRAND: I can totally see that argument. But as much as I hate to admit it, I'd rather get out of the game altogether. But the problem is, I don't have the path to get out of that rut.

LANGFITT: The Senate plans to take up a proposal to expand trade assistance early next year. The House of Representatives has already passed a similar bill. But the margin is not enough to override a presidential veto.

Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Washington.

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