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For All of Us, the Future of Labor Lies in Learning

September 05, 1993|JAMES FLANIGAN

If you're worrying about jobs this Labor Day weekend, keep two thoughts in mind: We've survived doubt and fear before; and life is not a career, it's an adventure.

Friday's ambiguous unemployment figures--fewer jobs in business but slightly less unemployment overall--confirmed Labor Secretary Robert Reich's observation last week that "No one's job is secure in the new economy, from the corporate chief executive to the ordinary worker."

Reich made the remark as he introduced a school-to-work apprenticeship program designed to improve the job market chances of the vast majority of high school students--75%--who do not go on to get a college degree.

The apprenticeship idea, which puts high school students into real jobs for part of their junior and senior years, is a good one. The United States is overdue in using apprenticeship to train non-college youngsters with skills for modern industry; such training is their only chance for a good job with decent pay.

For it remains true that college educated people earn far more--over 70% more--than those who only have high school, says economist Finis Welch of Texas A&M, who with Kevin Murphy of the University of Chicago has done extensive research into incomes. That means education pays off with at least $1 million more in income over a 40-year working life.

And even though this "white collar" recession put a lot of senior people out of work, college educated workers still fared much better than others, says Frank Levy of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Levy, author of the 1987 book "Dollars and Dreams," which pointed to growing income divergence between college graduates and other employees, says the trend favoring education will only intensify.

Future demand will be strong in health care, finance and many other fields for people with skills in math and communications, Levy says. Today's fear that job opportunities are permanently diminished is nonsense.

"Don't base your judgments on a low point in the business cycle," he says. We have been there before. In the 1958 recession, Arthur Burns, economic adviser to President Eisenhower, thought the nation didn't have enough skilled people to sustain a growing economy. But the Kennedy Administration cut taxes in 1961, the economy took off and jobs were abundant through the 1960s.

In the 1970s, by contrast, good wages and jobs could be had seemingly without regard to education. But that was an accident of demographics and inflation. Baby boomers coming to work swelled the work force by 3% a year and more paychecks plus inflation made the United States its own growth market. Foreign competition still seemed marginal.

The 1980s brought an end to inflation and painful adjustments to those industries, mainly manufacturing, exposed to global competition. So manufacturing got lean and is competitive today, but the economy changed. "Blue collar" workers now make up only 29% of the U.S. work force, white collar employees are 59% of the total.

But business is slow because the work force, now receiving the Baby Bust generation, is growing 1% or less per year. Consumer demand is down and there is no inflation. So businesses are scaling back at home and seeking growth in foreign markets--thus needing all the more to be globally competitive.

That means there will be opportunities in foreign trade and services. Language skills and knowledge of the world will be a plus. Math will be at a premium: A society devoted to investing wisely and insuring against cost of illness will need financial advisers, actuaries, accountants and, yes, lawyers.

But a society trying to control costs will also need health care and legal technicians who can do much of the work, freeing up doctors, nurses and other professionals for critical tasks.

Communications skills will fetch premium pay: The person who talks on the phone to mutual fund investors will have to be even more knowledgeable, efficient and personable than the bank teller of old. Competition for such jobs won't be based on pay alone but on skills.

That's why apprenticeship is such a good idea. Some states already have active programs. In Pennsylvania, 79 metalworking companies are hosting 105 apprentices on a part-time basis. In Maine, students spend 20 weeks in school, and work 30 weeks out of the year; they go on to work and technical college after high school graduation.

The movement is just beginning, says Foster Smith, director of the Washington-based National Alliance of Business, which helps with training programs.

Importantly, apprentice training focuses on improving skills broadly, not in a narrow way like courses in cosmetology and other trades. Apprentices thus are readied for the real life of work--which is not predictable at any age today. Again, life is not a career. Youngsters should take a broad view of their skills and goals.

Study lives of successful people. Ruth Bader Ginsburg couldn't get a good job when she got out of law school in the 1950s because she was female and Jewish. But she found work, argued for women's legal rights, won distinction and is now a U.S. Supreme Court Justice.

Richard Riordan, lifelong lawyer-businessman, went into politics at age 62 and is now mayor of Los Angeles.

Look at people all around you, the woman taking a law degree in her 40s, the man laid off at 50 beginning to enjoy his new consulting business.

Labor Secretary Reich is correct: No job is secure in the new economy. But there are opportunities to step out and achieve. As the late Grace Hopper, computer pioneer and U.S. Navy Admiral, put it, "A ship in port is safe, but that is not what ships are built for."

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