W. Clyde Helms has an idea he thinks will help ease this country's unemployment problem and at the same time make us technologically stronger.
The United States, he believes, is fast losing its leadership in technology -- in part because of our failure to identify industry's needs and train the people to meet them.
It is, he says, "a crisis critical to the future of this country."
For almost five years now, Helms, a retired Defense Department employe who spent 30 years directing manpower training programs, has been trying to interest the government in his idea.
His experiences serve as a guide -- or as a warning -- to anyone who comes up with something new he or she thinks the government should adopt. It's not, he has found, easy.
As a former GS-14, Helms has plenty of bureaucratic know-how -- and it has been invaluable as he's made his way up and down the Mall from the White House to Capitol Hill taking to whomever will listen.
He's briefed senators, representatives, Carter aides, and the Labor, Commerce and Education departments. Outside the government, he's contacted scientific associations, businessmen, union leaders.
He keeps his Xerox churning and his phone busy. So far, he estimates, "In time alone, I've invested $200,000" in this dream.
He figures he has conferred with as many as 150 to 200 officials, averaging about two a week. At 61, he says, "It's taken a hell of a lot out of me. But I can't give up."
Many of the people he has briefed, he says, "agree with me," but they are either busy pursuing other goals or figure several federal agencies already do the job. So far, he's been unable to reach the people at the top who could take the initiative on his ideas.
Bureaucrats, he says, stick to "the safe thing." Thus, what he hears is "This is Jack's job, or Jill's job -- if they want to go ahead with it, then we'll back them up."
In 1977, however, Maryland Sen. Charles McC. Mathias introduced a bill that Helms had worked with his staff on to create a National Occupational Assessment Center -- "to identify new employment opportunities created by technology and production trends."
The bill didn't get very far, and Mathias is now involved in a reelection campaign, but, says his legislative director, Joe diGenova, "We still believe his concept has a lot of merit."
Such an occupational assessment center, Helms argues, would be able to look toward the future to determine what jobs are going to be needed in our increasingly computerized, spaceage world. In many cases, he says, "New jobs that we don't even know about will have to be created."
Exit the blue-collar blacksmith in our century, and make way for the "white-frocked technician" skilled in handling hazardous wastes.
Among the jobs of the future he already sees a need for:
Energy conservation technicians. We're just "at the tip of the iceberg," he says, in energy-related jobs.
Housing rehabilitation technicians: people trained to restore older homes and buildings.
In the field of social services, child-advocate specialists, with paralegal training to look out for children's rights.
Ambulance personnel who, with the aid of a portable TV camera, could perform emergency medical help on accident victims under the instruction of a doctor watching a screen back at the hospital.
These kinds of jobs, says Helms, "could put people who are out of work back into the workforce and get them preparing for the next decade. It will take decades to train our technological workforce."
Helms, president of a small Arlington futurist firm, Occupational Forecasting, Inc., is a quiet man. But he speaks with the fervor of one who has seen the light and can't understand why those around him haven't. Fascinated by technological innovation, he was one of the first 15 World War II Marines to be trained in turbo-jet engines.
Naturally enough, his hobby is inventing, and he has several patents, though none has paid off yet. His latest invention, however, could make money for him. It's a pocket-size coat hanger for travelers.
The country's productivity is suffering, Helms says, because we have "no system or method in operation within the government to collect advanced technological information and assess its implications for, and inpacts upon, productivity and the national economy.
And, "There is no system to forecast, design and implement the new occupations for which these technologies generate imperative requirements."
For the nation, he says, this means that:
"Unknown numbers of jobs are obsolete," or becoming so, for which people are still being trained at great cost. They're learning skills of the past, not the future.
In some government programs, low-income workers are being taught skills for industries where employes are already being laid off.
High-school vocational classes often are teaching outmoded techniques. Go into campus auto shops, he says, and you'll find equipment "dating back to the post-World War II period."
"We talk about kids dropping out of high school -- what they're learning they don't identify with the exciting, space-age things they see on TV."
When college engineering and science students graduate, industry has to retrain them at a cost of billions. "It shows our colleges aren't in the real world."
"We spend hundreds of millions of dollars to create new technology," but invest "only cents" to study its impact on employment -- what jobs will be outmoded, what new ones will be needed.
At a time of high unemployment, new industry is begging for skilled workers.
An occupational assessment center monitoring the impact of technology on the workplace, Helms believes, could resolve this. Schools and unions would have available new data needed to keep their training up to date -- "so people would be available at the time we start to operate that assembly line."
The center would also create new jobs. For Helms, who believes his firm is the first one in the "science" of occupational forecasting, there is a potential for lucrative government contracts. One Education Department official with whom Helms has talked, and who agrees with him, thinks Helms could be sitting pretty" once the country wakes up to what he's saying.
In 1976, Helms' firm got a $1.5-million Labor Department contract to set up a model program to train people -- especially the unemployed, veterans and youths without previous work experience -- to fill new occupations.
In the 32-month model program, about 200 were trained at Marymount College of Virginia and George Washington University in paraprofessional health jobs -- mostly in nursing but also in the futuristic work of the "biomedical engineering technician" who maintains complicated and critical life-support devices.
Helms believes the model he created, which alternates in-class instruction with on-the-job practice, could be used effectively across the country to train hundreds of thousands in new fields.
Meanwhile, Helms keeps up his rounds of briefing. "It's hard to launch an educational movement. There's apathy and resistance to change, since change has such awesome implications."
But "if we don't start now," he says, "there's always the possibility we won't be here."