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Computers as Friend, Foe in Shifting Job Market : Technology: The advances in electronics threaten to victimize rather than revolutionize those daunted by change.

March 17, 1994|EVAN RAMSTAD | ASSOCIATED PRESS

Melvin Ornellas was 46 years old and living in a homeless shelter in Philadelphia when a young staff worker brought in a personal computer.

Six years later, he's on his own, teaching literacy and computer skills and earning money with free-lance desktop publishing jobs.

"The last thing on your mind if you're in a shelter is a computer," he says. "You're not thinking it can do anything for you."

Ornellas' age, poverty and transient life seemed to place him at the greatest risk of getting left behind in the computer revolution. Instead, he became part of it.

But Ornellas is an anomaly, an exception in the growing ranks of people pushed aside by technology's march, ranks that include citizens both educated and affluent.

Consider: Fax machines and satellite television help stir democratic upheaval among the have-nots in China and Russia, but Armani-suited law partners in the United States hire twentysomething assistants because they can't work a personal computer.

The world's expanding electronic personality shines in the ease in which the computer literate can withdraw money from a bank, learn livestock prices, order a plane ticket, pick up CNN in Hungary, send a fax from Hanoi, and skip through a recording by the New York Philharmonic or U2.

But millions of people choose not to live that way. To them, computers are either too impersonal, or too daunting.

Sadly, many more people have been left behind for economic reasons--they cannot afford or have no access to computers--and their troubles are multiplying as the cost of living outside the electronic world spreads from merely having fewer job opportunities to social and cultural disadvantages.

It impacts on even the simplest levels: More and more banks, for example, now charge less to checking account customers who transact only with automated tellers rather than people.

This is the down side of the electronic personality--threatening to victimize rather than revolutionize.

Congress has just started writing new telecommunications law, trying to balance the desire to give everyone access to advanced technology and services with the need to avoid costly subsidies for equipment and training.

But some consequences of technology's march have not gained as much attention, just as the exodus to the suburbs and decline of cities was not foreseen during the building of interstate highways.

Chief among them is the displacement of labor.

Technology began extensively replacing jobs in agriculture more than a century ago, and in manufacturing more recently. Now, jobs are being pushed aside in service businesses.

An oil company, for example, no longer needs a big staff at a depot in New Jersey, since a tanker driver can indicate how much gasoline he's taking via a computer tied to the company's main office in Houston.

Many companies now hire fewer secretaries, since managers themselves write and change documents on PCs.

And not long from now, some experts say, advanced technology will push aside pharmacists and clerks in video, music and grocery stores.

"With electronics, you have ubiquitous opportunities for large-scale elimination of the need for employee labor," said Thomas Hirschl, a Cornell University sociologist. "Now, the question becomes, where are people going to go? That's the question nobody really seems to have the answer for."

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One way to look at it is that people can be retrained, but the stakes are high.

"If you do it wrong, everybody is unemployed and our economy goes to hell in a handbasket," said Arno Penzias, the Nobel Prize-winning vice president of research at Bell Labs. "I don't know how to work it but, from a techie point of view, that's what I see happening."

Chronic homelessness, the forced early retirement of managers in middle age and the difficulty many college graduates have finding jobs previously deemed worthy of their education are signs of how the technology-fueled replacement of labor is rippling throughout the economy.

"You can't stop progress," said author John Naisbitt, whose "Megatrends" was one of the most popular books of the 1980s. "What happens classically is these new areas create new jobs. Think back 20 years ago--there wasn't a single person in biotechnology."

The problem of obsolescence puts enormous pressure on schools, where most people first learn about computers.

Unfortunately, many schools still view computer skills as static, like learning how to hammer. The state of Michigan, for example, requires students to take one computer class in either junior high or senior high. At the rate computers and software change, however, a student who opts for the course in seventh grade is leagues behind the real world at graduation.

In addition, because funding differs widely, some schools have shiny new machines and well-trained teachers, while others rely on corporate hand-me-downs and volunteers.

"One of the problems with technology is people who can afford it and be exposed to it can move ahead," said David Bunnell, editor in chief of New Media magazine.

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