Question: What can we do to keep people from becoming unemployed in the future?
Answer: The best way to keep people employed in the future is to increase their ability to fill the jobs that will be available.
There will be plenty of jobs in the future for those who are able and willing to do them. Just look at the situation today. There are jobs all over the country. Many employers are desperate for workers. Many newspapers have column after column of help wanted ads.
Yet in the midst of this mad hunt for workers, we have an unemployment rate of 7% or more. I believe that this rate will rise in the future--possibly even above the levels of Europe, where it is already over 10% in some countries--unless vigorous action is taken soon.
People want quick and painless solutions to such problems. Unfortunately, there aren't any. Our high-tech society is changing so rapidly that jobs appear and disappear with incredible speed. Gone is the day when you could learn one job and be set for life. Young people getting their first jobs should recognize that they may change not just their jobs, but their careers, three or four times during their lifetimes.
No Sign of Diminishing
The pace of technological and social change in our societyshows no sign of diminishing. On the contrary, it seems likely to speed up. That means jobs will appear and disappear at an even faster rate than now.
The people who get the best jobs will generally be those who keep learning new things and are ready to jump in when an opportunity opens up. People who have stropped learning are likely to wind up with no jobs at all.
Many workers in our society have gotten this message and are following a variety of strategies to acquire the skills needed for success. But many others don't know what they should be learning. Some feel that they haven't got the time, and that, besides, education is costly and boring. As a consequence they may never really try to learn anything new, or if they do, they may simply follow a personal interest without regard to its value on the job market.
Worst off are the vast armies of people who never learned to learn and who are permanently alienated from education. For many of them the main thing they seem to have learned in school was how much they hated it.
Millions of Americans are functionally illiterate, able to read at a fifth grade level at best. Other millions cannot read at all. There are additional millions who can read but actually do such little reading that they are losing the facility for it--and hence their ability to learn new skills.
As our society becomes increasingly high-tech millions of people are so incompetent as to baffle employers. People who cannot read easily lack what is perhaps the most fundamental skill for functioning successfully in society.
Illiteracy is a life-threatening disability. Recently in a large industrial plant an illiterate employee was killed because he couldn't read a warning sign. Another worker nearly killed several co-workers because he was not able to understand printed instructions.
I believe the time has come to make education compulsory for adults as well as children.
Already physicians, engineers, teachers and workers in many other occupations are required periodically to update their skills if they want to keep their licenses or qualify for promotion. Unfortunately little is done now to prepare people in many fields for the time when they may need to look for a new occupation. Workers who lose their jobs to automation and overseas imports may be pressured into attending classes aimed at giving them skills needed for other work.
It would make a lot more sense if people could be regularly acquiring new skills so that they could make a shift when the occasion presents itself. New skills acquired can open up attractive new opportunities for a worker. And by taking advantage of a new job or career opportunity a worker often opens up a job for somebody else.
The biggest problem on the horizon is what to do about that very large group of people who have become permanently alienated from education and reading. For them we need to think about new forms of education. Fortunately the new educational technologies--computer-assisted learning and videotaped courses, for example--may make it possible to reach even these people much more effectively than in the past.
With just a push in the right direction compulsory education for adults is an idea whose time will come.
If you have a question about the future that you would like to to see answered in this column, send it to Edward Cornish, P.O. Box 30369, Bethesda, Md. 20814.