In the economically depressed Ohio River valley, local leaders have found a new and politically explosive use for federal job training funds: export unemployed workers to find jobs in other parts of the country.
Under a program that appears to be unique in the United States, the Community Action Organization of Scioto County, Ohio, offers selected workers up to $100 in travel expenses, $75 for food and $63 for lodging to hunt for jobs in the Sun Belt and other states. For workers who find a job, the program provides $100 a week until the first paycheck arrives.
The money comes from the Labor Department's Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) program, and in 2 1/2 years, the program has spent about $450,000 to find jobs in 20 states for 250 to 300 workers, according to officials in Scioto County, which surrounds the city of Portsmouth.
Texas is one of the most popular destinations.
Last year a presidential commission drew a storm of protest when it recommended that the country accept the inevitable economic decline of the Northeast and Midwest and design federal programs to help workers relocate to the growing Sun Belt.
County officials in Ohio say that Washington so far has shown little enthusiasm for their relocation program. But they say it has proven extremely popular in an area with an unemployment rate of roughly 17 percent and little prospect for new jobs.
"In our area, unemployment was so great that we didn't have any alternative," said Steve Sturgill, operations director for the Scioto County CETA program.
The program originated in 1980 after the Empire-Detroit Steel Corp. closed its mill, putting 1,200 people out of work.
"We realized that with high unemployment here in the county, there were too many people for too few jobs," said Dick Bussa, county CETA director. "There was only one solution, which was to find them jobs outside the county and help relocate them."
Despite the problem of persuading politicians to fund a program that moves constituents to another part of the country, county officials, with the help of the office of Gov. James A. Rhodes, began a pilot program using CETA funds.
It proved less than successful with unemployed steelworkers, many of whom were deeply rooted in the area and who were unable to sell their homes. In January, 1981, the program was opened to all persons eligible for CETA training.
The program provides workers, many without jobs for a year or more, the skills necessary to seek work.
They receive classes in how to put together a resume, how to handle a job interview, how to seek work over the telephone. The participants practice interviewing skills in front of a closed circuit television camera.
The Community Action Organization then makes available newspapers and telephone books from around the country and telephones. It is left to the workers to find potential jobs.
Once a person has lined up at least three interviews, he is provided the travel money. In some cases, the program provides transportation in a recreational vehicle the county has leased.
County officials say the key to success is careful screening and the requirement that the workers find their own interviews.
"The number of people who could have gotten jobs is even higher," Sturgill said. "We are in a rural county that prides itself on being family-oriented. It's very hard for people to uproot and move."
County officials estimate they have placed more than 50 percent of the people who have gone through the program, although reports from one Texas city where many of the workers found jobs suggests the program is not foolproof.
"I hate to throw cold water on it, but our luck has been rather slim with that program," said Ray Cooper, production manager of Fleetwood Travel Trailer of Texas Inc., in Longview.
Cooper said some workers placed through the program had quit without notice and apparently headed back to Ohio. "I don't think I have anyone left from Scioto County," he said.
The program has received the enthusiastic support of the Labor Department's regional office in Chicago, even if Washington officials have been reluctant to embrace it.
"It's not giving money to get people out of town, but to get people who might have been electricians to an area where electricians are in short supply," said Bill Berry, the federal representative in Chicago assigned to Scioto County.
Calling politicians in Scioto County more "enlightened" than those who protested the report of the President's Commission for a National Agenda for the Eighties, which called for such policies, Berry added, "This program is identical to the one in the presidential report, but I think this is exactly the way to go."
Tom Cochran, executive director of the Northeast-Midwest Institute in Washington, acknowledged that on a small scale the program can be useful.
"It's obviously not something that can be done on a huge scale," he said. "We don't have the nationwide computer nets that all the experts have been calling for."
Scioto County officials say they are meeting resistance from Texas officials, among others, who say they can no longer provide jobs to unemployed workers from the North.
"I'll say this to you up front," said Bob Eitleman, executive vice president of the Longview Chamber of Commerce. "There are just no jobs hanging loose here. I would not encourage any more busloads of people coming here looking for jobs. We've got more people in Texas than we can take care of."