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Retooling autoworkers Retraining: Assembly line workers at Baltimore's GM plant are learning everything from reading and writing to computer keyboarding in an effort to ugrade their skills.

A jolly green chameleon pops up on the screen and gobbles up the letters "a-s-d-f" as fast as the autoworker named Alfred can peck them into his computer.

"That's supposed to make you a little relaxed," explains Denise Miller, the instructor in this class at the General Motors Broening Highway plant.

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A half-dozen day workers are hanging around after their shift learning keyboarding from Miller, a briskly efficient assistant professor of office technologies at Dundalk Community College. She teaches 14 computer classes at the UAW/GM Learning Center, a unique adult-education program where workers learn new skills.

Keyboarding is one of Miller's basic computer courses. She starts her students off with classes on buying a computer, then getting comfortable with it. She continues on through Windows 95 and the Internet to programs like Microsoft Excel.

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"Whatever's hot in the software market today," says Jay Norman, the United Auto Workers union representative who helps run the Learning Center.

The center is just around the corner from the assembly line where Chevy Astros and GMC Safari vans move by at a steady, stately, but quick pace of 58 vehicles an hour.

About 3,100 people work at the Broening Highway plant, a sprawling factory with 3 million square feet, over 50 acres, under roof, where the M-van -- M for midsized -- has been produced since 1984.

The Learning Center came to the Broening Highway plant along with the M-van. GM spent $6 million or so developing the van, another $6 million refurbishing, modernizing and automating the factory.

Then it became clear that there were a lot of people whose basic skills were not what they needed to cope with the new automation and the new methods of work.

"And that's where it started," says Norman. "We found out we had some serious problems. Things became more complex and people just were not up to the skill level."

Historically on the assembly line, few educational requirements beyond a high school diploma have been needed. And diplomas may not have been checked too closely in a plant once manned by 7,000 workers.

"Not everyone can do this type of work," said Fred Swanner, Norman's UAW partner at the center. Swanner and Norman run the program in cooperation with Michael Reeve, GM's on-site employee development supervisor.

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Autoworkers have had to be able to cope with the repetitive monotony of the assembly line ever since Henry Ford started mass production of his basic black Model T's in 1913. Nowadays they need skill, agility and considerable smarts as well.

"I spent 16 years out on the floor assembling vehicles before I was appointed up here," Swanner says.

He's 46, wears a gold medallion on a chain at his neck and lives in Dundalk on the banks of the Patapsco River. He was born at the Naval Academy where his father was an instructor. Norman's dad brought his family from West Virginia when he went to work for Martin aircraft. Norman has a shock of graying hair and a master's degree from Johns Hopkins University.

"When we first started here," he says, "we did a lot of basic adult literacy training, teaching people how to read and write. We've done a pretty good job over the years of finding out who those people were and getting them in here.

"We were a basic literacy and GED [Graduate Equivalency Diploma] prep school. That's what we did," he says. "We have actually taken a few people from being basically illiterate to having associate degrees.

"We put well over 200 people through the GED process or External High School Diploma Programs," Norman says.

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People who might have been insecure, abashed or even ashamed going to a college campus or even a local high school felt comfortable coming to these classes, held in the familiar atmosphere of the workplace. And nobody would know why they were there or what they were taking.

"We have very, very strict confidentiality rules," Norman says. "And after a while, we didn't know because Dundalk did the student needs assessment to determine exactly what kind of training or education they needed. They still do that."

Dundalk Community College became a partner in 1985 when the program became formalized as the Learning Center.

It's a contractual arrangement. None of the Auto Worker students or their spouses pay anything.

Funding for the center comes from various provisions in the UAW-GM contract, about half from the union workers and half from the company, says Mike Reeve, the management partner.

Dundalk runs the academic side of the program. It selects the teachers and, with input from the Auto Workers, develops the curriculum. Dundalk personnel research courses, help with needs analysis and assess skills in math, English, reading and writing.

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A dozen part-time teachers conduct 13 courses, says Jill Sommer, Dundalk's coordinator at the center.

Swanner figures about 400 people have taken courses at the Learning Center over the last decade.

"You would be hard-pressed to find a handful of people who can't read or write in this factory today," Norman says. "There may be a few, but it's not anywhere near what is typical for an industrial environment like this. Because of this program."

The Learning Center surveys the workers every year to generate ideas. Computer literacy was the No. 1 priority this year. But the center is not all reading, writing and Windows 95.

"We've got Roy Hill's Drag Racing School coming in to teach 'em how to build race car chassis," Swanner says.

For those who lack drag racing literacy, Roy Hill is a champion race car driver out of North Carolina. His weekend chassis building course, which appears under the rubric of "Personal Enhancement," was suggested by workers in the factory.

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On the books for this month: A Dale Carnegie course. Can-do Dale packs them in, 25 to 50 people usually, Norman says. "We have also done Evelyn Wood," a speed-reading course.

They've held college-level math classes, welding classes and electrical code courses for workers who want electrician licenses. About 140 electricians work among the skilled tradesmen in the plant, along with pipefitters, millwrights, carpenters, welders, painters and tool-and-die makers.

Pub Date: 1/13/97


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