A FIGHTING CHANCE FOR THE HARD-CORE JOBLESS
Untill recently almost a million North Americans had just about given up hope of ever supporting them-selves again. Niw some of the same men are holding down better jobs than they ever had before, with new skills they learned by giving back to school
Maclean’s Washington editor
IN THIS FAIRLY PROSPEROUS SUMMER of 1962, it's an unhappy anomaly that close to 4.000.000 Americans and 500,000 Canadians are still out of work. Yet most of them expect, and have expected right along, to be wage earners again sooner or later, and their confidence has been strengthened by a rise in the demand for labor as compared with that in 1961. and by the fact that both Washington and Ottawa seem to have put unemployment at the top of the list of urgent national problems for which early solutions must be found.
Until quite recently, though, a minority of the jobless — those who had been idle for at least six months and in many cases for a year or more — had just about given up hope of returning to the ranks of the self-supporting. There were 734.000 of these people in the U. S. and 87,000 in Canada when they were counted in the spring and most of them had two things in common: relatively little schooling and a background of experience that fitted them only for tasks that either don't need human hands these days or require fewer hands than formerly. Without marketable skills they were virtual castoffs, as unwanted as outworn machinery.
WHAT UNEMPLOYMENT TAUGHT WEST VIRGINIA
Those who fall into this category arc called the “hard-core" unemployed by economists, who ascribe their plight to “structural changes" in industry. More specifically, they are the one farmer in five, the two coal miners in three, the two railroaders in five and all the other scores of thousands who have been displaced by postwar technological advances. They are, to cite a familiar example, the 30,000 to 40,000 men and women in New York City alone who operated the elevators the passengers now operate themselves. For researchers probing the causes of North America’s labor surplus, they arc also a constant reminder that it once took 140 men with shovels and horses to move the same amount of earth that one man with a bulldozer can move now.
While the number of hard-core unemployed has been increasing at an estimated rate of 5.500 a weck in the U. S. and 500 in Canada, their prospects suddenly appear to be a bit less
bleak and discouraging than they were, if not exactly bright. Knowledgeable officials at Washington and Ottawa are now predicting that a lot of them, perhaps more than half, can be salvaged from the scrap heap.
The improvement in their prospects may not have actually begun in the small town of Welch in the hills of badly depressed West Virginia — hills that squat on enormous deposits of coal. But the improvement stems from a new acceptance in the U. S. and Canada of the idea that obsolete workers can be retrained, updated and restored to usefulness — an idea that Welch certainly helped to spread. It was there in 1959 that George Bryson, the superintendent of schools, summoned unemployed coal miners to a meeting at the McDowell County Vocational School. Among those on the platform was Miss Ethel Fryer, state counseling supervisor of the West Virginia employment security department, a spry, diminutive, gray-haired woman in her sixties. Bryson and Miss Fryer told the miners what they already knew but didn’t like to admit even to themselves: that mechanization had made them unnecessary to the mines, not temporarily but permanently. Then they told them they were sure old miners could be taught new skills like welding, motor mechanics, woodworking and the repair of household appliances. If the miners acquired these skills they'd have a chance of acquiring new jobs. If courses of instruction were organized the classes would have to be at night, since the regular students filled the school by day. The miners nodded in agreement. They nodded again, and laughed, when Miss Fryer mentioned that they would have to attend
classes punctually and regularly and submit to all the school rules, including no smoking in the classroom.
West Virginia's government, as it turned out, was as enthusiastic as the miners themselves about training and in no time the courses were rolling smoothly. There were those who traveled twenty or thirty miles from their home* to school in every kind of weather. Although West Virginia is noted for hillbillies, moonshine stills and the famous and bloody feud of the Flatfields and McCoys, and its coal miners have a legendary reputation for being rough and tough, these miners in the classroom behaved like model schoolboys.
WHAT WEST VIRGINIA TAUGHT KENNEDY
In half the counties of the state more than twelve percent of the workers are unemployed and there are districts where this runs as high as tw'enty-five percent. In spite of this, most of those who completed the initial courses at Welch found work. The West Virginia Legislature reacted by voting $400,000 in I960 and $500,000 in 1961 to retrain the unemployed and the Welch plan was adopted throughout the state.
Yet it would hardly have had an impact on the whole U. S., an impact felt across the border in Canada, if it hadn’t been for John F. Kennedy’s presidential election campaign. Of West Virginia’s 1,850,000 residents, ninetyfive out of 100 are Protestant. As a Roman Catholic, Kennedy realized that if he could win the Democratic primaries in this Protestant state it would be a long stride toward the nomination at the Democratic national convention. So he invaded West Virginia, trailed by an army of reporters.
He — and the reporters — were appalled at the unemployment and the signs of want and poverty. Kennedy promised that if he were elected he’d do his best to end the unemployment and revive the economy. He — and the reporters—had a look at the retraining courses for the unemployed and was deeply impressed, as press dispatches told the world.
As it turned out West Virginia voted over-
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continued from page 18
Ontario’s record : 80 % of the men who went back to school eventually went back to work
Kennedy in the primaries, practically cinching his nomination. He reciprocated when he reached the White House by persuading Congress to pass the Area Redevelopment Act, which created the Area Redevelopment Administration and gave it wide powers to aid distressed areas— West Virginia among them.
The ARA. like Kennedy, was impressed by the retraining classes—so much so that it decided to establish retraining classes of its own in West Virginia and other regions designated as “distressed.” It set up its first retraining schools last November on a modest, still-experimental scale. Those who enrolled, after passing aptitude tests, could draw subsistence allowances if they weren’t eligible for unemployment benefits.
By April a mere 400 had completed the ARA’s sixteen-week courses but 2,000 others were studying in eighty-nine schools in thirty-nine communities in fifteen states. On May 9. Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg announced that he had okayed 100 programs in thirty states, which would shoot the total of trainees—or /¿'trainees— up to 8.500. And on May 14 the ARA administrator, William Batt, announced a further expansion and said 15,000 would be retrained in the immediate future.
Meanwhile the success of West Virginia’s state-financed retraining projects, plus the results obtained by ARA, had been decisive enough to speed the passage by Congress of the Manpower Development and Training Act of 1962. This provides for an expenditure of $435,000,000 over the next three years. If it hits its target, it will train I 10.000 unemployed for new occupations the first year, 160,000 the second year and 300.000 the third year. MDTA courses will last up to twelve months and those taking them will get unemployment benefits or subsistence allowances. To some extent ARA and MDTA will be competitors. but ARA is promoting the development of new industries in distressed areas by means of grants and loans and will concentrate on training men and women for these industries, which include a plastic tape plant in Illinois, a sporting goods factory in Missouri, a fish packing plant in Florida, a glove factory in Illinois, a textile mill in Pennsylvania, a boat company in Oklahoma. a paper mill in Mississippi, a peat
moss enterprise in Maine, a publishing firm (high school year books) in Maryland, a prefabricated housing plant in Georgia, a ski resort in Michigan, and a millwork plant in West Virginia. The fact that an abundant supply of labor is being trained for these industries, at government expense, is an inducement to them to locate where they are most needed.
If the U. S. is now thoroughly sold on occupational training for the unemployed, so is Canada, where all ten provinces are participating in a federal - provincial scheme. The federal government pays fifty percent of the cost, plus an additional twenty-five percent to a province that meets a quota of student training days that is based on the province's adult population. Every province has passed its quota.
At March 31 this year 10.672 of Canada’s jobless were in training, compared with 5.673 at March 31. 1961. Between April 1, 1961, and March 31. 1962. training was given to 26,887, or more than twice the 10.744 in the previous year.
Reports presented to the National Technical and Vocational Training Advisory Council when it met in Ottawa in May showed that eighty percent of those who completed unemployment training in Ontario found immediate employment.
Welding, stenography, typing and clerical skills are being taught in all provinces; auto mechanics, carpentry and electrical subjects in eight provinces; diesel mechanics. plumbing, heating, radio and TV repairing and machine tool operation in seven; auto body work, bricklaying, plastering, architectural drafting, barbering, cooking and hairdressing in six: and practical nursing in five. At least two provinces teach sewing, electrical appliance repairing. heavy machine operating, stationary engineering, small-engine repairing and oil burner repairing.
According to officials, job placement rates for those who have taken the courses have been high, and for many the training has been the opening chapter of an unexpected success story.
In Toronto, which offers the unemployed instruction at the Adult Retraining Centre and at the Provincial Institute of Trades and has the largest concentration of trainees in Canada, a sixty-one-year-old tailor’s assistant was laid off. He entered
the Adult Retraining Centre. He had a flair for figures, studied bookkeeping, did remarkably well, and was promptly hired as superintendent of a group of apartment buildings, for which he looks after all records and accounts. He earns more than ever before.
An unmarried mother from the Maritimes. handicapped by an infant and with no qualifications to help her get employment. took a stenographic course at the Adult Retraining Centre and was engaged as a secretary at a salary that enabled her to keep herself and her child comfortably and dress well. She has since had a SlO-aweek raise.
A man in his fifties, laid off by a Toronto aircraft plant, and long unemployed, took radio and television servicing at the Provincial Institute of Trades and set up his own business in an Ontario town. He wrote Gordon Wragg, principal of the PIT. two months later to say he would shortly be able to provide a job for another PIT "graduate.
Roland Schlinke. thirty-five, who came to Canada from Germany eleven years ago and settled at Toronto, was a shipping clerk until the company that employed him went in for automation and cut the number on its payroll from 900 to 600. He trudged the streets looking for work and being turned away, but when he completed a course as a radio and 1 V serviceman the jobs came after him. He refused the first two. "The attitude of employers when you are a trained man is absolutely different from their attitude when you are untrained." he says.
To which Ray Lawson, registrar of the Provincial Institute of Trades, adds that the attitude of the trainees changes too. as does their appearance. The beaten look that a lot of them have when they enroll after a futile and discouraging hunt for work is replaced by a look of confidence.
Trainees in Canada not eligible for unemployment insurance benefits receive subsistence allowances, just as trainees do in the U. S. The Canadian allowances are $3 a day for a single person living at home. $5 for a single person away from home. $6 for the head of a family living at home, and $8 for the head of a family away from home. A married woman whose husband earns less than $60 a week draws $3 a day if living at home and $5 if away, but there is no allowance for a married woman whose husband earns more than $60 a week.
Meagre as the allowances are. they’ve enabled an occasional individual, among them a furrier, to quit jobs they disliked and get by while learning a new trade.
It's far easier to enter a course in Canada than in the United States. I he applicant in the U. S. has to undergo an aptitude test set by the Department of Labor, which takes from two and a half to three and a half hours and is supposed to measure his educational level, mental ability and manual dexterity. "We try to put them at ease." Mrs. Chloe Lester, who administers the tests at Williamson. West Virginia, told me. “We talk to them beforehand and try to get them not to fear the test and to relax, but they are so anxious to pass — overly anxious. I believe. We never talk harshly to them. We know they are already nervous."
In spite of Mrs. Lester’s concern for them, and her earnest efforts to be helpful. half the applicants flunk the aptitude test and are disqualified for retraining. In Williamson, which has been so hard hit by the closing of some mines and the mechanization of others that in five years the population has dropped from 8.000 to 5.000. and where the remaining merchants dress the windows of vacant stores with their own merchandise so the main street won't look so depressing, failing the aptitude test
is pretty close to a tragedy, ft shuts the applicant off from what may be his last opportunity, his one hope of escaping from unemployment.
In Canada, on the other hand, the lack of an admission test has been criticized. The principal of the Adult Retraining Centre. R. J. Aitchison. points out that he and his staff arc handicapped by knowing nothing about the intelligence or past schooling of new trainees. In a card the trainees fill in, they tend to exaggerate the education they have had. and don’t have to substantiate their statements.
But, because the program is for all the unemployed, not just the unemployed who can pass a test, educators have tailored the courses to fit the needs. Men and women who want to study trades that require more basic education than they have had are given “basic training for skill development courses” to raise their proficiency in the three Rs. But you don’t have to be able to spell very well or excel in mathematics to cut hair so barbering is a popular course in Toronto, although Toronto's market for barbers is saturated. The graduates, having practised on one another and on customers attracted by the bargain price of fifteen cents a haircut, find jobs in northern Ontario and elsewhere in Canada.
Sign writing is also a popular course, ami those who take it arc snapped tip by employers. For the middle-aged and elderly. less likely to be hired for most jobs than those who are younger, there are courses like building maintenance, the academic tag for what a janitor does. Older men, if they have enough basic education to follow electrical textbooks, can learn to service electrical appliances — a skill that’s practically a guarantee of work, especially in small towns where trained repairmen arc scarce.
“Never underrate a coal miner”
The courses vary from province to province. For example, Ontario’s restrictions under the Apprenticeship Act prevents Ontario’s unemployed from being taught such trades as bricklaying, carpentry, electric wiring and installation, lathing, motor vehicle repair, hotly and fender work, painting and decorating, plastering and plumbing, although these subjects are being taught in some of the other provinces and tradesmen in these categories are generally in short supply. The length of the courses varies too: you can become a pipe welder in Ontario in four weeks or a welder-fitter in twenty weeks; learn to service refrigerators and air conditioners in sixteen weeks; learn to service oil burners in twelve weeks; learn architectural or engineering drafting in ten months; learn barbering in eight months; take either a six-month or ten-month course in sign writing; take a secretarial course in six months.
In Canada the courses, on an average, are stretched over a longer period and arc,
1 gather, not as grueling as the ARA courses in the U. S.. which strive to cover a great deal of ground in a maximum of sixteen weeks. Wherever possible the Canadian courses are held by day while those of the ARA are more often at night.
The classes in the once prosperous but now fading coal town of Williamson, West Virginia, are in the Williamson Trade School and start at 3.30 in the afternoon, half an hour after the regular students have departed. They continue until 11.30 at night, with a break of twenty minutes for supper, and the unemployed trainees seldom pack it up before midnight. I met trainees who live twenty or thirty miles from Williamson and drive the round trip daily in battered pickup trucks and beat-up jalopies. Beno Howell, a rugged, apparently tireless man who directs the Williamson Trade School from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.
and is co-ordinator of the training program from 3.30 until 11.30, showed me around proudly. In the machine shop he pointed to the men at the lathes. “In seven weeks they’re making the same items as thirdyear apprentices. They have to have aptitude and intelligence to do that. Nobody should underrate a coal miner.”
In the woodworking and cabinet-making shop, also after seven weeks, the men were making two magnificent coffee tables, gifts for President Kennedy and Commerce Secretary Hodges. These men. at the end of their training, would have jobs waiting for them in the new furniture plant put up near Williamson with ARA financial assistance. One of them, Harold Kiser, thirtyseven, a broad-shouldered man with rusty hair and a shrubby mustache who is married and the father of five, gets $31 a week in unemployment benefits and spends $8 of it on gasoline because his home is thirty miles from the school. As a miner—until the mine closed down two years ago—he'd earned as much in a day, with a spot of overtime, as his present weekly income. How. with a wife and five kids, w'as he managing on the $23 a week he now had left after buying gas? “We have our own cow, our own chickens and our own fruit.” he said.
In the auto repair shops, unemployed miners were learning by doing: taking
automobiles apart piece by piece and putting them together again. If anybody wanted an auto fixed they were willing and ready to practise. Would they find jobs when the course was over? “G.M. dealerships alone need SO.(HH) trained men.” Carl Dobson, their instructor, told me.
Later, with Beno Howell, I stood i.. the dark schoolyard looking through the windows into a brightly lit classroom where women and girls, mostly miners’ wives and daughters from the surrounding hills, sat at typewriters. They were going at a great clip. Several were doing ninety words a minute. Howell said. “Sometimes they type to music to improve their rhythm, and they get singing,” he said. “It’s worth seeing, or hearing.”
All the classes were worth seeing because these people were not just regaining the ability to earn a living, but recapturing the hope they had lost. Watching them you began to understand why the retraining of the unemployed is important, why it is spreading so fast.
It is not, of course, the ultimate answer to the unemployment problem that confronts both the U. S. and Canada. The economists and statisticians I’ve talked with in Washington, where it’s possible for a reporter to pick the brains of some of the best economists and statisticians on earth, all seem to agree that unemployment won’t be overcome in the two countries until their rate of economic expansion accelerates to a point where it equals the growth in the labor force plus, the constant rise in labor productivity that results from technological progress. The experts, or most of them, estimate that the economic expansion in the U. S. must be sufficient to create between 3,000,000 and 4,000,000 new jobs a year. If this is so. then the economic expansion in Canada, which has a tenth of the population of the U. S., will presumably have to be sufficient to create from 300,000 to 400,000 new jobs a year if unemployment is to go down, not up.
Yet the fact remains that there are jobs today that are empty because there are not skilled workers to fill them and that the unemployed, by retraining, can be turned into skilled workers. The fact also remains that a large proportion of the new jobs economic expansion creates will require new skills. If those who are unemployed now don’t learn these skills, the advocates of retraining say, the new jobs will nass them by. ★