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Old 10-27-2006, 07:21   #1 (permalink)
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US:Feds to retrain autoworkers

Feds to retrain autoworkers

Laid-off Mich. workers can get $6,000 grants; timing questioned

Gordon Trowbridge / Detroit News Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON -- Workers in Michigan and four other states hurt by the auto downturn will be eligible for up to $6,000 each in training grants under a U.S. Labor Department program announced Thursday.

But Democrats and labor officials called the plan a last-minute ploy to deflect criticism of Bush administration policies just before a crucial election.

And the state official who administers worker training in Michigan said the state hasn't been notified that it was receiving the grant.

"I'm surprised," said Brenda Njiwaji, director of the Bureau of Workforce Programs in the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Development. Njiwaji said the state had sent federal officials a letter in July agreeing to the program, but was waiting for more information before sending a final commitment to put up its share of the funding.

President Bush has taken criticism from Michigan politicians for his failure to meet with officials of the troubled Detroit automakers.

And four of the states in Wednesday's announcement -- Michigan, Missouri, Minnesota and Ohio -- have U.S. Senate races that Republicans desperately want to win.

"It's painfully obvious," said U.S. Rep. Sander Levin, D-Royal Oak.

"We're 10 days before an election. But you can't with a last-minute ploy cover up years of inaction and inattention".

Patricia Abernathy, 53, of Detroit, agreed.

"It's an election year, and I think it is Republicans trying to gain ground," said Abernathy, who in May lost her job with Johnson Controls making seats for DaimlerChrysler.

Worker training is valuable, she said, but help for the auto industry should have come long ago.

Whatever the politics, the demonstration program, expected to help about 500 workers, is tiny compared to the thousands of Ford and GM layoffs in Michigan and around the country. By next year, domestic automakers will have 130,000 fewer workers than in 2003.

Eight states will receive $1.5 million each to set up individual accounts workers can use to pursue education or job training. In Michigan and four others, the money -- which must be matched by the states -- will be targeted at workers affected by auto layoffs, though it won't be limited to workers laid off by Ford or GM.

Njiwaji, the state official, said Michigan had asked if the grants would be limited to autoworkers, or could apply to suppliers or other companies affected by the downturn.

"We need more guidance," she said.

The program announced Thursday will set up demonstration projects in the states, which administration officials hope will prove the concept.

"What we're talking about here is effectiveness," said Elaine Chao, U.S. Secretary of Labor. While current programs provide training to about 200,000 workers a year, the Labor Department says the individual-accounts concept eventually could reach four times as many.

Labor groups dispute that. The 2007 proposal would have cut worker training by 16 percent, according to the National Employment Law Project, a worker-advocacy group. Under the proposal, help with job searches and other assistance would be in danger, and it would hurt workers now eligible for grants of more than $3,000, the group said.

But labor groups said training is no substitute for addressing the auto industry's troubles.

"People need the jobs," said Alan Reuther, director of legislation for the UAW, "not these training programs."
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