A group of Japanese dignitaries came to Howard County yesterday to learn firsthand how Americans deal with people who are laid off from their jobs.
"They asked for a meeting with dislocated white-collar workers who have an association with a community college," said Lois S. Golian, their U.S. Department of Labor escort who set up the visit.
Mostly, they got their wish.
The group of 33 men and three women representing government and industry are here for a two-day labor symposium beginning today in Washington.
At the Hickory Ridge Building in Columbia, they heard from four people who have been unemployed and now are in various stages of course work at Howard Community College. The course work is a required element of the county's Employment and Training Program.
Three of the four have been permanently laid off from their jobs. The fourth quit her job to raise her children and now is seeking employment again. Their stories, told to the Japanese visitors through an interpreter, appeared to lose none of their poignancy in the translation.
Getting laid off from his job as a computer specialist at Unisys 18 months ago "was a tragic moment -- the most terrible thing I think could ever happen to me," David Chiaraelli told the visiting delegation.
He had felt so secure in his job that he bought a house. But after getting laid off, he "had no idea where the mortgage payment would come from," he said. "I had to withdraw my retirement plan to pay the mortgage bill. It's been a very rough road."
That road would not have been passable were it not for the help and encouragement of people at the Employment and Training Center near the community college in Columbia, the speakers said.
The center is an arm of the Mid-Maryland Private Industry Council, a 22-member group that works with the governments of Carroll and Howard counties to provide policy guidance and oversight for programs funded under the federal Job Training Partnership Act.
"I don't know what I would have done," said Ida Wheat, who had been laid off from her job as an office manager a year ago.
Now she is benefiting not only from her courses at Howard Community College but from a stress-management program that offered as part of the training, she said.
"They have helped me see the light at the end of the tunnel and, hopefully, a better future," Ms. Wheat said.
Karen Bethea, who worked 9 1/2 years as a laboratory assistant for Westinghouse before quitting to raise her children, praised .. caseworker Pat Shipley for helping her to achieve the skills she needs to become a legal secretary.
"I believe very soon I will have all the skills I need," she said.
Girma Mulugeta, who came to this area to find work after having been laid off by a New York accounting firm, praised the employment center for its help with resume and cover-letter writing, in addition to its paying for his course work in computer accounting.
Everyone who comes to the employment center goes through a four-day orientation to help determine what skills they will need to acquire or update to become competitive, the Japanese delegation was told.
"We business people recognized we were not getting the qualified workers we needed," said G. Melvin Mills Jr. of Carroll County, industry council chairman. "We created PIC with business in partnership with government in order for us to tell [government] how to train employees for us to use."
The visitors wanted to know how the program helps participants meet their financial and psychological needs. They were told the program pays tuition, sometimes helps with transportation money, and provides Monday morning workshops to deal with stress.
The Japanese visitors listened with formal politeness throughout the two-hour program, applauding every speaker vigorously without waiting for the translation.
"My impression is that there is a big effort here in education -- a strong, positive effort in this area," Tarou Muraki, the delegation planning officer, said through an interpreter. "The way you approach [the problem of forced unemployment] is very similar to that of the Japanese government. I have learned a lot.
"The whole atmosphere is very positive. [The four participants] looked positive and happy about the program."