Retraining Programs Help Workers Learn New Skills and Get Back on Job

Times Staff Writer

Olga Robelo has worked at Lanz, a women’s clothing manufacturer and retailer, for 25 years. She has graded patterns--draft ing a range of pattern sizes from one basic pattern piece--with ruler and pencil and later with a manual grading machine.

But now, Olga Robelo is moving into the computer age along with Lanz and many other companies in the garment industry. Robelo is learning pattern grading on a $250,000 computer system--the same system that Lanz is buying to electronically design, grade, mark and lay out patterns on fabric. Her course at Los Angeles Trade-Technical College will last four months, meeting two nights a week and on Saturdays.

“This is the third time I am learning my job,” says Robelo, who emigrated from Nicaragua “a long time ago.”

“This is the new thing, so I have to learn to do it,” Robelo says. Grading patterns on a computer “is easier physically but it’s more difficult mentally. It’s more fun, too.”

“This program really is on the cutting edge of technology,” says Sharon Tate, assistant dean of fashion design, merchandising and cosmetology at Trade-Tech. Although many of the students initially are intimidated by the technology involved in the course, which is the only one of its kind on the West Coast, they feel the training is necessary if they are to keep their skills up to date, Tate says.


Robelo is one of thousands of workers who are seeking retraining because they are “displaced” or are in danger of being displaced from jobs in the nation’s factories and offices. These workers are finding that the jobs they know are no longer in demand because of changes in technology or because those jobs are shifting to other countries where labor is cheaper.

The circumstances are many. One worker might have been laid off when his job evaporated. Another may be undergoing retraining with the assistance of his employer or union to keep skills current to avoid layoffs. Some workers, primarily women, are attempting to re-enter the work force after a long absence.

For these people, training and retraining are crucial to their employment, labor market experts say.

“I think (retraining) is more and more important,” says Steve Duscha, executive director of the Sacramento-based Employment Training Panel, a 2 1/2-year-old state agency that diverts $55 million a year from unemployment insurance to programs for worker retraining. “We are seeing in microcosm some of the enormous changes that are taking place in our economy.

“We went through a period not too long ago when the best jobs were said to be going to work on the assembly line at General Motors or going to work at a steel mill. Those were the elite blue-collar jobs,” he says. “Then those jobs began to disappear and we began to retrain these people.”

Economists said at the time that displaced blue-collar workers would be absorbed by an increasingly service-oriented economy. But many office and service workers now find that they are being displaced as well, he says.

“I think the changes are greater than they have been in the past,” Duscha says.

“We’re no longer competing just with other American firms. We’re truly an international economy now, and we’re not going to win that competition with lower wages--we’re going to win that competition with smarter workers,” he says.

Training and retraining for workers is available through a dizzying variety of state and federally funded programs, community colleges, private vocational schools, community agencies and corporations.

For workers who are being retrained with the help of their union or current or former employer, finding a program is not a problem. But for others who have been laid off and are not being assisted in their job search, the first stop on the retraining route generally is the local office of the state Employment Development Department.

As workers collect their unemployment checks, they can consult with EDD counselors who direct them to appropriate retraining programs, according to Judy Fisher, an employment program representative at the EDD’s Van Nuys office.

Job-seekers also can attend a free job-search workshop, Fisher says. At the Van Nuys office, the workshops last four hours and cover such subjects as skills evaluation, how to prepare a resume, how to sell yourself to prospective employers, grooming, body language, what questions to ask during a job interview and follow-up techniques, she says.

“It works out well because a lot of people feel that they’re quite alone,” Fisher says. “They leave with a little more confidence.”

Many of the retraining programs to which job-seekers are sent are operated by the Employment Training Panel or by various programs funded by the federal Jobs Training Partnership Act. JTPA programs are coordinated by private industry councils, which can be found in the city and county of Los Angeles as well as other areas in Southern California.

But the referral system doesn’t work as well as it could, says Linda Thor, senior director of occupational and technical education for the Los Angeles Community Colleges District, which contracts with both the Employment Training Panel and with JTPA’s private industry councils.

“The truth is both the Jobs Training Partnership Act and the Employment Training Panel are some of the best-kept secrets in town,” Thor says. “Many of the programs are under-enrolled. They just haven’t been able to identify enough eligible participants.”

The Los Angeles County Private Industry Council has trained about 12,300 people since July, 1983, in addition to 10,000 young people who have been involved yearly in the council’s summer youth employment program, says Dan Flaming, director of the council and chief community services analyst with the county Department of Community and Senior Citizen Services. The council operates training programs for the economically disadvantaged and retraining programs for displaced workers.

About 70% of the people trained in the council’s programs find jobs, Flaming says. The Los Angeles County Private Industry Council contracts with about 60 schools and agencies to operate the programs, which are conducted either in the classroom or on the job, with the council subsidizing up to half of the employees’ salaries, he says.

The state-funded Employment Training Panel contracts with schools and corporations for training programs “that run the gamut,” Duscha says. “There’s a remarkable variety.”

Since it was established in January, 1983, the Employment Training Panel has authorized training for almost 43,000 people involving more that 3,000 employers at a total cost of $121 million, Duscha says. The panel was scheduled to dissolve at the end of 1986, but Gov. George Deukmejian recently signed legislation that extends its life span until Jan. 1, 1991.

The panel operates two kinds of programs, Duscha says. “The first thing is to try to save the jobs, try to train the people that you have for other jobs in the company or for the new jobs,” he says. “The other (type of program) is for people who have already been laid off” or who have exhausted their unemployment benefits within the last year, he says.

To ensure the success of its programs, the Employment Training Panel pays the contractor only if the trainee goes to work and stays on the job for at least 90 days.

“If you’re talking about a worker, someone who’s been in the labor force, with a family to support, a car payment to make and rent to pay, you can’t waste that worker’s time in a retraining program that doesn’t produce a job,” Duscha says.

Programs run by the Employment Training Panel and by Job Training Partnership Act agencies are free to the trainee. Often the trainee is employed either full or part time by the participating corporation during the program.

But daily living expenses are not included if an unemployed job-seeker has used up his unemployment benefits.

If a worker is enrolled in a training program through a public school, such as those in the the Los Angeles Community Colleges District, the trainee may be eligible for financial aid through the school, Thor says.

“That is a problem,” Thor says. “Displaced workers have a difficult time facing reality.

“They keep hoping that the plant will reopen or if the plant is still open and there were large layoffs that they will be recalled,” she says. Sometimes the workers were highly paid but relatively unskilled and have trouble facing the fact that they will have to take a job that doesn’t pay as well as their last job, she says.

“They wait until their unemployment benefits have run out before they face reality,” Thor says. “Because of that, training programs tend to be short-term and intensive.”