A FINAL JUDGMENT on the success or failure of the Labor Department's HIRE program to help unemployed Vietnam-era veterans is not yet possible. But a number of observers have been offering tentative assessments since the program was announced last January and begun last June. Those observers include the General Accounting Office, which said March 9 that HIRE "has developed slowly and has had only limited impact through 1977." Such groups as the Veterans of Foreign Wars say bluntly that HIRE "just isn't working." Rep. Lester L. Wolff (D-N.Y.), who serves on the Veterans Affairs Committee, says the "success of the program to date has been but minimal."
Against that background of negative assessment, we commented recently on some of the problems with HIRE and how the program might be pulled together. Our comments - directed to the federally funded ($140 million) portion of the program, not the voluntary part, which is run without federal money by the National Alliance of Businessmen - are the object of an article on the opposite page by Secretary of Labor Ray Marshall.
Mr. Marshall is trouble by our reference to the fewer than 200 veterans who have had jobs produced by HIRE. That was the figure supplied by the department itself as the most recently available - the December figure. Mr. Marshall, disputing the figure, says the federal part of the program has contracted for 8,000 people. But that figure, according to HIRE officials, means that agreements have been reached between the department and employers for 8,000 potential openings that will become available when a specifiv job order is placed with the local state employment service office.
How many of those 8,000 openings have been filled is not known. Employers have the life of a 12-month contract to fill the jobs and thereby qualify for federal reimbursement for the cost of training the workers. Moreover, it is not ensured that those 8,000 openings will go to veterans; HIRE gives them priority, but the program also includes disadvantaged young people and the long-term unemployed.
None of this is to argue a numbers game, still less to suggest that anything but a full and vigorous commitment has been made by Labor officials and NAB. We regret that we couldn't have been more enthusiastic about the unemployment figures, except to note that they had improved . Mr. Marshall call the recent changes "dramatic" for veterans in the 20-through-24 age group, but he bolsters his case by selecting the figures from September - which was the high month of 1977. A trend of lower rates surely exists, and it is reassuring; but the celebratting ought to be held off for a bit; among younger black veterans, for example, the fourth-quarter unemployment rate in 1976 was 22.1 percent. A year later it was 30.8 percent.
Along with others, we have strong hopes that HIRE succeeds and the $140 million set aside for it proves a sound investment. If the reimbursement program does deliver on its original and lofty promises - 100,000 jobs for Vietnam-era veterans - few except the new jobholders themselves will be more delighted than those who are now criticizing HIRE.