DECATUR, ILL. -- Pam Portwood understands economic change. At 34, she is working at her eighth job in 12 years, having ventured into one faltering industry after another in search of steady work here in the nation's heartland.

She lost an assembly line job soldering copper wires on turntables at the local General Electric Co. plant in 1975 when the company bowed to Japanese imports and stopped making stereos. A sales job at a home air-filter company and another at a water-softener firm disappeared when the two small businesses failed after a national recession hit the local economy.

Next to go was a waitressing job, lost when the restaurant where Portwood worked folded after a wave of layoffs hit four nearby factories that had supplied customers. Four years as a garment worker ended abruptly in 1984 when the plant where she sewed trim on women's clothes closed due to insurmountable competition from the Far East -- one of 400 U.S. garment plants shuttered in 1984.

She also left two jobs voluntarily -- one as a garment worker in Arkansas when she divorced her husband at the time and moved home to Decatur; one as a secretary when she heard that the federal grant paying her salary at a local community college was to be discontinued, and she sought more secure work.

Pam Portwood is not the prototype of a nomad. She has a high school diploma and has managed to support two children on her own for most of the last decade. Lanky and hyperactive, with red hair, dark eyes and a smile big enough to mask her travails, she is remembered by her many supervisors as remarkably dedicated. The economy simply changed faster than she did.

"I didn't have any skills when I got out of high school, but I didn't think I was going to need any," Portwood said.

Portwood happens to be caught in an economic pothole: a city whose industries are in decline, with an unemployment rate hovering between 10 percent and 12 percent, almost twice the national average. So many firms have been battered by imports that a local mall recently had a 20-percent-off "Made in America" sale.

But Portwood's history of dislocation is becoming increasingly typical of American workers. Secretary of Labor William E. Brock frequently says that the average member of today's work force will change occupations three times and jobs six times before retirement, thanks to changing technology and global competition. In ways, the situation parallels the upheaval that transformed the national economy from agricultural to industrial more than a generation ago.

"This economy is like an apparently calm body of water that has vicious undertows," said Pat Choate, policy analyst for TRW Inc. and a congressional adviser. "On the one hand, there's 6 percent unemployment, but millions of people are being pulled under through absolutely no fault of their own."

The bulletin board at the Decatur unemployment office tells the story: a blizzard of postings for unskilled, minimum wage, part-time work -- homemakers, counter attendants, "servers," store clerks, security guards, bartenders; fewer than 10 for jobs paying more than $15,000, all requiring specialized skill in nursing, financial management, chemistry or electronics.

And nothing in between.

Thanks to a federal training program for displaced workers, Portwood is now a secretary at a large food-processing company. Although the firm is being restructured, causing layoffs and transfers, she feels secure -- for the moment.

But she knows well that the outside world is not so hospitable, even for secretaries with specialties. The state jobs service recently got an order for a legal secretary. "I have 12 qualified women registered," said Ann Irwin, manager of the program. "The company only wants to interview three."

Portwood's 12-year odyssey has included four marriages, two of which she blames on a desperate search for security. When her third marriage failed, shortly after she lost her sixth job, she said she had an awakening of sorts.

"Part of me just wanted to prove myself to my kids. I'd had all these failures, I'd been married and divorced, married and divorced," she said. "People would ask me, 'When are you going to straighten up?' and it angered me that they saw me that way, because I was trying so hard. Maybe, most of all, I had to prove to myself that I wasn't what everyone thought I was."

The job history of Portwood's husband, Chuck, indicates that her experience is -- if extreme -- not atypical here. At 35, he has been laid off from two factory jobs, two construction jobs and a plumbing firm, and has left three other jobs in search of better pay or benefits. He now works in airport maintenance. He said he knows numerous other men and women his age with resumes like his and Pam's.

Not only workers have had trouble keeping pace with a changing economy. So has the government. Labor Secretary Brock has called for dramatic changes in the U.S. Employment Service, which currently places only one in 20 dislocated workers. Although the Portwoods together have changed jobs more than 15 times, neither has ever found work through the government jobs service.

Reflecting frustration with the present system, numerous lawmakers and the administration have called for vast increases in funds for training, counseling and placing dislocated workers in new jobs. Others seek parental-leave laws or low-income, child-care vouchers, now that half the nation's children under age 6 have a working mother. And others advocate "portable pensions," so that workers like Portwood do not forfeit pension coverage as they change jobs.

Pam Portwood was the third of five children of a construction-worker father with a fifth-grade education who always had work. "It kind of led me to believe there's a lot of jobs out there," she said. Her mother, who didn't work when the children were young, had dropped out of junior high school.

Portwood had little interest in school, got her diploma in 1971 and married a factory worker at the local Firestone plant. She had two children within three years and began looking for work to help pay the bills. General Electric hired her.

"I didn't have any skills, but GE didn't need any," she recalled. "I just soldered two copper wires together and onto a square plate. Then the machine came by on the assembly line and I just dropped it on. Easy money."

When the plant closed in 1975, she was slow to seek work because of troubles with child care. She and her husband couldn't afford a day-care center and had relied on neighbors and relatives, who often couldn't come through at the last minute.

In 1976, she answered a newspaper advertisement for a job selling vacuum cleaners at Rainbow Aire Cleaners. Within three months she was the top salesperson. She also doubled as a secretary. Her sister then was working at a nursery school and took care of her children during the day. Her husband watched the children when she made night sales calls.

Her marriage ended a year later. Her husband moved to Texas and refused to pay child support, she said. Rainbow Aire closed late that year, and she commuted an hour to the firm's Champaign office until that closed, too. She began waitressing and applied for welfare, but was granted only food stamps.

"I can remember waking up in the morning and wondering what I was going to feed my kids for breakfast," she said. "My mother would show up sometimes with three bags of groceries and give me $10, and it would seem incredible."

The next year, she married her former supervisor at Rainbow Aire and moved her family to Arkansas where she became a garment worker, sewing collars onto shirts at Tri-City Shirt Co. in Salem. Her husband couldn't find work, she said. By 1978, at age 25, she had divorced her second husband and moved with her children into her parents' home in Decatur.

She was hired that year at the Fireside Inn restaurant, a gourmet eating spot where her tips were as high as $50 a night. But business slackened and her hours were cut from 40 to 27 and then to 10. At the time, nearby Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. and Caterpillar Inc. plants were laying off workers, as were two food-processing firms, Archer Daniels Midland Co. and A.E. Staley Manufacturing Co. It was not the time for a gourmet restaurant in Decatur. The Fireside closed in 1981.

"I turned around and got married again," Portwood said.

Her third husband was a railroad brakeman with steady income who didn't want her to work. But employment for her had become a basic measure of worth. She went almost daily to El Dorado Apparel Co., a drafty, brick garment factory, to ask about openings. In 1980, she was hired to sew trim on women's clothes.

"I just knew it would never shut down," she said. "They had been there too long. There were too many women who'd been working there 20 years."

But just then, a wave of cheap imports from the Far East drove much of the American apparel industry into the ground. Three years later, all but 18 of 150 El Dorado workers were laid off; Portwood was part of the skeleton crew who remained. The plant closed for good in 1984.

"It wasn't a reflection on the workers," said Fred Hoekstra, vice president of the firm that owned El Dorado. "It was unfair foreign competition. That was our oldest and least-efficient facility, with the shortest lease. The landlord was not equipped or willing to spend any time on improvements. So we just took a powder there. It was the path of least resistance."

"Here I was again in the same boat with no place I could take my skills," Portwood said. "There was no other garment factory in Decatur. There wasn't as much money in waitressing anymore because too many people went to fast food. And so much had changed since I'd been a secretary that that was out, too."

The closing of the garment plant attracted government attention, though, and the federally funded Job Training Partnership program offered education and training to the displaced workers. Portwood was one of three to sign up. She opted for secretarial and computer courses -- with no moral support from her husband and little confidence from her parents.

"Pam had hated high school. And I'll admit I told her I didn't think she could make the grade, but she was just bound and determined to do it," said her mother, Shirley Smith. "She's a lot smarter than I gave her credit for."

She was nearing the end of her training program when her third marriage failed. The divorce was final the day her unemployment insurance expired. With less than two months to go in school, she boarded her children with her first husband's parents, moved into an efficiency apartment and spent days and evenings at Richland Community College finishing her courses.

When the program ended in spring 1985, she was typing 80 words a minute without mistakes and had completed four computer courses. The college hired her as a secretary directly from the program, and she brought her children home.

That job became shaky, though, because the federal grant funding it expired the following year. The difference was that this time she had marketable skills. In June 1986, she was hired as a temporary secretary in A. E. Staley's employment division.

The "temporary" job required full-time work, but for five months she still was paid as a part-timer, without benefits, an increasingly common business practice. During that time, her supervisor was amazed by her attitude.

"I'd come in at 8:01 a.m. and everyone else would be drinking coffee, and Pam would be sitting there at that desk really concentrating, working as if something just wouldn't let her stop," said Mary Matiya, employment supervisor for Staley. "It was sort of gradually that I learned about her story as I checked references. When I got the whole background, it began to make sense."

Matiya called employers throughout the city seeking permanent work for Portwood, with no luck. Almost everyone was filling openings with part-timers. Finally, last November, a secretarial job opened in the purchasing department, and for the first time in two years, the company took applications from in-house temporaries. Nine, including Portwood, applied.

"When {the purchasing supervisor} came in here to tell Pam she got the job, you would have thought she won the million-dollar lottery," Matiya said. "She hugged him. He hugged her. We were all standing up cheering. I'd never seen anything like it."

Today, Portwood works 40-hour weeks at just over $7 an hour typing, filing, record-keeping, preparing change orders and invoices, and keeping records on contracts. She gets health, life and dental insurance as well as pension benefits. Chuck Portwood also has health benefits and a pension program.

They recently bought a three-bedroom house in a small subdivision south of Decatur, where they live with Pam's children, Kim, 15, and Eric, 12, and Chuck's son, Josh, 7. They talk of going to the community college together to take courses, she in legal secretarial skills, he in refrigeration.

On a recent drive through Decatur, Portwood showed a visitor the idled workplaces of her past: the GE plant that sat empty for years and is about to become a food warehouse; the restaurant that is now an Elks' lodge; the apparel factory that is boarded up, surrounded by small, abandoned restaurants.

She also drove by a string of fast-food restaurants, including a pizza parlor where her daughter, Kim, will soon be a counter clerk. Pam says Kim has learned the lessons of economic uncertainty, having lived through the turbulence and job changes with her. The mother doesn't want her daughter to make the same mistakes. She hopes Kim will become a nurse.

Kim has other ideas.

"I'm going in the Army," she said. "The Army recruiter came to our school and said if you go in the military you'll have a definite future. That's what I want -- a definite future."