WASHINGTON -- Putting on his "moon suit" during a make-believe chemical disaster was only part of the fun for Gary Remson when he took an eight-week course on handling hazardous materials last year at West Los Angeles College.
The teaching seemed first-rate. Experts from the police and fire departments sat in as guest speakers. But most important of all, the laid-off aerospace worker looked forward to his prize "at the end of the rainbow" -- a job with a future.
"They were telling us, 'You'll finish up class on Friday, and you'll have three or four companies waiting on Monday to pick you up,' " the displaced Hughes Aircraft employee said of the government-funded program. But in the end, Mr. Remson said, his opportunities were bottom of the barrel. Literally.
The only available jobs, as he recalls it, were to do things like shoveling waste and cleaning out dirty barrels for just a fraction of his old wage as a computer technician. "When we finished the program," said the 38-year-old Los Angeles resident, "there wasn't anything there."
Today, as President Bush and Bill Clinton tout retraining as the answer for millions of workers whose jobs are jeopardized by an ever-changing global economy, Mr. Remson's tale is a cautionary one: Great expectations, lifelong habits and economic realities all can complicate the business of reinventing a displaced worker's career in just a few months.
By some evidence, workers who attend government courses often end up no better off than their colleagues who steered away from the classroom and stuck to finding jobs. Even with new skills, many will have to swallow the idea of a sharply reduced standard of living. Indeed, while the word retraining sounds good in a society that places great value on learning, most workers trying to survive after a traumatic layoff actually avoid it.
People with bills to pay and children often feel compelled to grab the first job in sight, rather than struggle without income as they acquire another skill. Others bide their time, clinging to the fantasy that their old jobs somehow will come back. Still others uproot their households and move on rather than get with the training program.
"The politicians can't give you a job, which is what you really want and really need," said Anthony P. Carnivale, an economist with the American Society for Training and Development in Washington. "But they can give you training."
The need is growing, along with the unhappy ranks of the displaced. Global competition, defense industry retrenchment and labor-saving technologies are reshaping work life and putting once-secure jobs at risk. Some 5.6 million workers who had been steadily employed for at least three years were laid off between 1987 and 1992, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Critics worry that the proposed North American Free Trade Agreement alone could add hundreds of thousands to the list. The government spends $650 million a year for retraining programs, along with other services.