Among the challenges to be met if economically disadvantaged people are to become self-supporting are a lack of training, opportunity, education and self-esteem.

Private industry has been asked to become a partner in a number of efforts designed to overcome those barriers.Although the specific details vary from program to program, the general idea is this: A company provides supervised training for an "employee," at little or no cost to the company. The "wage" is paid by some sort of stipend through the sponsoring program. The duration of such training is different with each program.

In the case of the Single Parent Economic Independence Demonstration project, it isn't a wage, but limited help with such expenses as appropriate clothing, meals during working hours and travel expenses. In the case of the "Try Out" program for youths, federal Job Training Partnership Act funds pay the wage.

The advantages to both parties are obvious. Someone who lacks experience or confidence receives supervised training and actually performs a job. Any special attention and training provided can only make the experience more complete and valuable. Someone who hasn't worked learns that he can, in fact, work. And make a little money learning it, too.

Businesses also gain. For one thing, except for the investment of time that goes into the training, they receive no-cost or low-cost help for the program's duration. They are contributing to society by providing disadvantaged people with opportunity. And they get, in essence, the chance to train someone without having to pay for the work done during the training period.

When the programs work right, at the end of the experience the employer should have a trained person ready to work - for pay.

Some of the programs ask that the employer give a satisfactory "trainee" work at the end of the program-subsidized training period. Some don't ask anything, although they are upfront in saying that they hope employment, when available and appropriate, will be offered. And a lot of companies do provide employment.

It's not only an exciting concept; it's logical.

It's also, unfortunately, sometimes abused.

A colleague recently told me that her mentally handicapped daughter and a friend had worked - and worked hard - for long hours in a low-skills job during the holiday season. Although there was no pay, everyone agreed it would be wonderful experience, especially since the company had agreed that the girls would be hired at least part-time if their work was satisfactory.

It was. Both girls got high marks on their evaluations and were thoroughly praised by co-workers and supervisors. No complaints at all, in fact. When the program supervisor called back to check on them, thinking perhaps the evaluations had been designed to spare the girls' feelings, she received the same report.

But the girls were never given a job. When their "internships" ended, the employer got two more interns and the cycle was repeated. He later admitted that he couldn't afford to hire any more help, but the "extra hands were sure appreciated."

And maybe that's OK. The girls did get some experience they would not have otherwise had. I just don't want anyone to forget that they also got a major disappointment. They worked their hearts out, "knowing" that they would get jobs if everything worked out. In truth, their performance had nothing to do with it. They would not have been hired had they reinvented the place and painted it rosy colors.

The employer was taking advantage of a chance to get workers at no cost to himself. It was that simple.

I don't want to discourage such programs in any way. I know that they are invaluable and the good by far outweighs the bad that might occur.

I also know that it's a tremendously positive step toward fitting those who are employment-disadvantaged into the work force.

Without companies willing to accept the program and provide training and support, it just won't work. A lot of companies are willing - and they're making a big difference for all of us.

To be effective, everyone has to acknowledge the responsibility inherent to both sides of the arrangement. That means trainees who give it their very best and use the experience to enhance their skills. And employers who will hire a trainee who earns the right to be there.