Rickie Gavin, an assembly-line worker in a truck plant just south of Detroit, had been laid off three times before. But when the company actually closed down in 1980, ''it was a shocker.''
Two years later, after an electronics course that retrained him as a laser technician and after a long, discouraging job hunt, he has finally landed another position, using his newly honed skills.
The organization that paid for his training, helped him polish his job-hunting techniques, and persistently encouraged him when the outlook was bleakest was the Downriver Community Conference (DCC) and its Employment and Training Division.
For the last two years the DCC has served as the nation's only federally funded community program focused wholly on retraining and placing workers who have been permanently laid off. The program's star graduates, in addition to Mr. Gavin, include other assembly-line workers-turned-welders, the superviser of a large bank's maintenance staff, and a credit-union accountant. All originally had jobs with southeastern Michigan auto, chemical, or steel plants that have closed.
''Without the conference (DCC), I'd probably still be on public assistance,'' Gavin insists. ''I got to the point . . . where I didn't believe anyone would hire me - most employers wanted experience and it was really depressing - but the people at the conference stayed with me and kept sending me on interviews. . . .''
The DCC serves a heavily industrialized corridor of 16 communities along the Detroit River just south of that city. Some 43 percent of the labor force, roughly twice the national average, works in manufacturing.
When two major regional employers - the German-owned BSAF South Works (a chemical corporation) and the truck-frame-producing Dana Corporation - closed within a month of each other in mid-1980, close to 2,000 of the region's workers were suddenly out of jobs.
It was a blow not just to the employees and their families but to their communities as well. The mayors of Ecorse and Wyandotte, the two cities most affected, appealed directly for help to the nonprofit DCC, which had been helping corridor towns in everything from economic to arts development.
Conference leaders mulled the options and came up with a retraining plan that fit no particular grant program on US Department of Labor books. They decided to send it to Washington anyway.
''The employment situation was deteriorating rapidly, and we felt our proposal was one possible way to have a positive impact on a bad problem,'' recalls DCC administrator Arthur Wild.
The Labor Department agreed. In late 1980 it surprised DCC leaders by awarding the group a $1.2 million grant as a demonstration project. Washington has since renewed and enlarged the grant. After two more major area closings last year - a Ford foundry and a steel-products plant - the DCC was given another $4.8 million to run through 1983.
The Labor Department has recently awarded seven other hard-pressed communities similar aid to retrain displaced workers. Most of these new grant recipients have come to Wyandotte in recent days to pick up tips on more effective program operation from their DCC job center counterpart.
Convincing the newly unemployed that retraining is needed, particularly when there's no firm guarantee of a job at the other end, can be a tough chore. DCC employment and training director Freda Rutherford makes the point emphatically to all coming for help that there is no future in Michigan for the assembly-line worker and that almost continuous retraining and education are a must. One of the toughest jobs of all, experts here say, is convincing retrained workers to accept generally lower wages than they are used to.
''Until everything runs out and welfare is what's left, they tend to be very resistant,'' observes Louis Milley, operations supervisor of the Employment and Training Division.
Of the workers DCC took in from the BASF and Dana shutdowns, an impressively large two-thirds have been placed in jobs. On the average, they earn $6 to $7 an hour. ''That may be an enormous comedown for an auto worker, but it's a lot better than the $3.35 minimum wage,'' notes DCC administrator Wild.
The Community Conference's record with the region's more recent second batch of laborers put out of a job has been somewhat less impressive because of the rapidly tightening job market.
''The labor market has contracted just enormously over the last year, and it's a real struggle for us now to place people,'' says Mr. Wild. ''Employers now want two or three years experience as well as the training.''
The tight job situation has, however, spawned a much more aggressive effort by DCC's large team of job developers to help create new jobs as well as scout out existing openings. They function somewhat like an employment agency, telephoning and knocking on doors to find jobs for the group's retrained clients.
The DCC has also recently launched a business assistance center. Its purpose: to help area businesses cut through red tape and compete more effectively for federal defense contracts. The center so far has helped 18 local businesses net more than $3 million in federal contracts.
The DCC's job center contracts out most of the retraining to community colleges and vocational schools and tries to place as many clients as it can in on-the-job training that carries the promise of a firm job at the end of the road. But the center's offices do offer permanently laid-off workers additional aid - from counseling to a telephone hot line with advice on getting medical help or food. They also offer a resource library and workshops to teach job hunters how to draft a resume and tout their assets more effectively in company interviews.