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Robert C. Gross is immersed in a gigantic construction project:

He's trying to figure out how to mix elements of more than 30 employment, labor, child care and welfare programs into a formula for employment success and independence.And although the Department of Workforce Service, which he will direct, isn't scheduled to be operational until July 1997, Gross will launch his "kick-off tour" Friday. In the next few days he plans to visit a number of the existing employment and welfare programs around the state.

"I'll be trying to meet as many employees as I can," he told the quality-improvement conference of the Office of Family Support Tuesday. OFS administers welfare programs and will be part of the new department. "It's important to understand your jobs and how you think."

The bill creating the department - in skeletal form - was approved by the Legislature in February. Gov. Mike Leavitt wooed Gross away from banking (he was the president and chairman of the board of First Interstate Bank) in April with a promise that it would be a "chance to be an architect of one of the most awesome changes in our government's history." He started his new job in May.

"My learning curve is still very steep indeed," he said. "But I know a lot more than I did."

About 2,000 employees of such diverse entities as the State Industrial Commission, Department of Employment Security, Office of Job Training, Office of Family Support, Child Care Licensing, Quality Control, Office of Child Care and the Turning Point program will be affected by the consolidation. But Gross said he hopes any staff reductions can be handled by attrition.

He has work groups tackling different aspects of the daunting creation process. The first step will be defining what goes into the new department, and that may not be easy, he said.

For instance, the Industrial Commission. It depends on how you look at the new department's mission, he said. "If it's just welfare reform, there's no need or place for the Industrial Commission."

On the other hand, if the department is intended to be the one-stop resource for job-training and employment programs, "then yes, it does" belong there. And either way, "that's a political hot potato right now," Gross said.

Gross cautioned workers not to worry too much about rumors and changes. "All I would ask is you open your vision and try to understand the government's vision," he said.