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The Computers Are Here, the Smart New Jobs Aren't

Training is key to workers sharing in technology's bounty

September 08, 1996

America's economy is booming. Corporate profits are at heights unseen since the 1950s; the unemployment rate is 5.1%, the lowest in seven years, and Labor Department figures show robust job and wage growth. Recent polls, however, suggest that many Americans feel unable to share in the bounty.

Last week, for instance, the Field Institute released a survey disputing the Labor Department's estimate that only 1.1 million Californians are unemployed. An additional 2.8 million in fact want jobs but have stopped looking because they believe their prospects are bleak, the Field pollsters reported. And a Gallup Poll released last year reported that nearly a third of American workers thought they might lose their jobs within six months.

If the economy is humming along so smoothly, then why are so many Americans so disheartened? One reason, the surveys suggest, is that many potential job seekers feel they don't have what it takes to compete well in the job market. And what it takes is new skills.

While 59% of California workers surveyed in the Field Poll said they believed that learning new skills was the only way to open the door to work-force advancement--or to find another job--only 39% said their employer provided skills training. Secretary of Labor Robert B. Reich has suggested one promising method of encouraging such training: give tax incentives to companies that offer their workers continuing education.

The same polls suggest, however, a deeper reason for today's worker disillusionment: Leaders from Reich to President Clinton to Rep. Newt Gingrich have oversold the Information Age as an era in which computers, by performing many basic job tasks, would free humans for nobler endeavors. To many workers, it seems the other way around. Rapid electronic scanners at supermarkets, for instance, have reduced the value of workers who know the inventory and handle customers well.

In an article published last week in The Times, Reich claimed that a new class of "technicollar jobs" has been liberating workers from "redundant chores." But the jobs that Reich cited--"sales clerks who tap into PCs to replenish inventories . . . vending-machine repairers who use hand-held computers to diagnose what's wrong and communicate back to the home office for extra advice"--hardly seem emblematic of what management expert Peter Drucker heralded as a "knowledge-oriented society" based on "intellective skills."

The problem lies not with the computers themselves but with the way they are being used in the workplace. Corporate investment in equipment--about a third of it in information technology--has grown by 55% since 1991. But workers are rarely trained to use the new equipment to their, and their company's, full advantage. Thus, despite a massive influx of computers into the workplace, output per worker is still growing at an annual rate of about just 1.1%, no faster than it did in the early 1980s.

Reich, while acknowledging that the new class of "technicollar" jobs may sound humdrum at first, argued sensibly in a phone interview that if workers are given the training to harness the full potential of today's information technology they will be able to use it creatively to gain more opportunity and authority.

"Someone with an undervalued PhD in English may not see any glory in numerically controlled machine operation," Reich said. "But the beauty of the computer is that if used intelligently, and in a supportive work environment, it can enable each employee to add value to the product. When computers are used as they should be, to share information, there's nothing to prevent a store clerk from becoming a marketing consultant or the secretary from becoming a manager." An inspiring thought, but many workers will believe it when they see it.

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