RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Trade policy is one of the big issues in this year's presidential campaign. So we're taking a look at a federal program aimed at helping workers whose jobs have moved overseas. It's called the Trade Adjustment Assistance. It gives laid-off workers job training, some money and a handful of other benefits. Noel King from our Planet Money podcast has more.
NOEL KING, BYLINE: This is a story about two guys named Mike. Both live in Erie, Pa. Both were laid off from manufacturing jobs. Mike Bennett is 36 years old and went on Trade Adjustment Assistance, or TAA, about 10 years ago. We met him in a restaurant in Erie, and he told us his story. He had a factory job. He was a machinist. Then his job went to Mexico. Mike signed up for job retraining through TAA.
MIKE BENNETT: I figured that my best shot for retraining would be, say, maintenance electricity.
KING: He went to a local technical school full-time for about a year and a half. And he did really well.
BENNETT: I ended up finishing at the top of my class for my training, as valedictorian.
KING: He looked for jobs that would pay as well as his old one, where he made $24 an hour. But as an electrician, he was starting at entry level. Nothing paid that much. He talked to other guys from his retraining class.
BENNETT: Well, we had a class of roughly 24 people. And the top wage that anybody could find out there was $12 an hour.
KING: And then Mike lucked out. He got another factory job. But earlier this year, he lost that one too - because of trade again. He could apply for TAA again. But Mike is done. He wants a job that can't be lost to trade. He and his wife cashed out their 401ks and are investing in rental properties.
The second Mike is Mike Borland. He's 35. After he was laid off earlier this year, TAA sounded like a good deal. He decided to retrain at a technical school in HVAC - heating, ventilation and air conditioning. I asked him, does he want to do residential or commercial? And he said something that really surprised me.
MIKE BORLAND: Honestly I don't expect to be doing it at all.
BORLAND: There's just so many people coming out of that school. You know, it runs year-round, but I can't get in until - January 3 is when my class actually starts.
KING: Here's the deal. There were hundreds of guys laid off from the same factory as Mike, and a lot of them are retraining in HVAC. He doesn't think there will be enough jobs for everyone. Jooyoun Park is an economist at Kent State. She studies TAA, and she says Mike Borland is right. This is one of the problems the program faces. Mass layoffs like the ones happening in Erie are a shock to the whole city. Job retraining is great, but for the people going through it...
JOOYOUN PARK: There are so many people who are entering the training program, like, at the same time. And they will be graduating the same time with a very similar set of skills.
KING: Once they graduate, they'll likely find themselves competing for jobs with their former co-workers. And this may be why TAA also offers some money for relocation to laid-off workers who are simply willing to move away from a place like Erie. Noel King, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.