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When Workers Go Nowhere Fast : How the United States Can Stop the Alarming Rot in Earnings and Productivity

June 24, 1990

Imagine a nation of Bart Simpsons. It might be fun to have the TV cartoon character around--but you wouldn't want the unabashed underachiever in charge of making the company computers.

That's not a happy prospect, but it could happen unless the United States embarks on a major overhaul of its workplace and educational system. A recent study by the Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce grimly predicted that if the United States does not begin to radically upgrade the quality of its workers, the country "will continue the current descent into a low skills, low wage, low productivity economy."

Already, real average weekly earnings have dropped 12% over the last 20 years so that workers in a dozen other countries now earn more than we do.

Earnings for 70% of the work force that is not college educated will continue to fall unless productivity improves.

Education alone will not reverse the trend. The blue-ribbon commission of American businessmen, educators and labor leaders concluded that business, too, must change. Management must come up with workplace strategies that eliminate layers of costly middle management and emphasize responsible, high-skill jobs instead of the simple rote tasks of traditional mass production.

The commission made a series of sweeping recommendations designed to strategically position the United States to better compete with Asia and Western Europe. It recommended, among other things, a national standard of education; developing programs for orderly school-to-work transition for non-college-bound students and providing incentives for business to help fund educational and training programs.

Labor Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole praised the bipartisan commission's report but stopped short of embracing its recommendations. But they should be used, at the very least, as a wise starting point from which to develop a program to stop the decline in U.S. earnings and productivity. Otherwise, the term "bottom line" may start to take on a new meaning: a lower standard of living.

DECLINING EARNINGS Loss in real wages over the past two decades. 1949 -- 1989 Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor

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