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Skills for American Workers

June 14, 1983



From a paper prepared by the Rooselvelt Center for American policy studies as part of a series of conferences, "Shaping the Work Force of the Future," sponsored by the Northeast-Mideast House and Senate Coalition and the Northeast-Mideast Institute.

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The task of retraining and upgrading skills of workers employed by private industry had traditionally fallen to companies. According to one estimate, private expenditures on retraining are currently running about $30 billion annually, though these funds may be inadequate or improperly focused. In fact, according the the Department of Labor, most of the 20 jobs demanding the largest number of new workers in the next decade will not require them to be skilled (hospital orderlies, cashiers, and fast-food workers, for example) and, in others, the skills will be traditional (secretaries, professional nurses, mechanics, teachers, and carpenters).

Still, the fastest-growing demand -- high in percentage terms -- will be for highly skilled workers (data processors, computer programmers, and engineers, to name several). Will our education and training institutions gear up fast enough to meet this demand? Positions for some skilled workers (like machine-tool workers, electronic technicians, and tool-and-die makers) already can be hard to fill.

Reflecting the shifting demand in the market, more students have turned their attention to engineering and computers in recent years. Between 1975 and 1980, for example, enrollment of college freshmen in engineering rose by almost 50 percent, to 110,000. Enrollment in computer courses tripled, to 321,000.

Now a major fear among educators is that there will not be enough trained professors to give these students quality education. Big salaries have lured away many faculty and graduate students to private industry, and there is no sign that the salary imbalance between industry and academe will right itself.

A broader problem is that our education system appears to be insulated from the marketplace and thus slow to respond to changing needs. When demand rises for woekers with certain skills, a shortage can last for several years. The lag may not be eliminated, but it can be narrowed by better communication between schools and universities and private industry.

With the dozen basic laws that make up federal employment and training policies expiring between 1982 and 1984, the United States has an opportunity to reexamine its approach to these human resource issues. Title III of JTPA (Job Training Partnership Act, 1982) appears to be part of a new approach to solving problems that result from structural change of the American economy.

Yet we don't have adequate information on such questions as: How many youths are chronically unemployed? How many workers are displaced as victims of long-term unemployment? In which industries has the decline in the productivity of American workers been most strongly felt? In which industries has a shortage of skilled workers actually occurred, or have the stories that have appeared been mostly speculation? The data and projections of the US Department of Labor provide some answers, but they are incomplete and at too high a level of aggregation.

What about our growing concern for displaced workers and our traditional focus on the chronically unemployed, whose problems are the uncovered wounds of the work force? Will these unemployed Americans lose out in the effort to upgrade the skills or workers on the job? Or will the country find that the cost of notm training the unemployed can be greater than the cost of training them and assisting in their search for new work?

Education is part of the solution to each problem of the American work force. For upgrading the current workforce, for remedial training and retraining, and for entry-level training, education in the skills and knowledge that define functional literacy (reading, writing, and problemsolving; understanding simple economics, health, and the community, for example necessary to reverse the decline in the productivity of the American work force, and, then, raise its level to compete internationally.

At the end of World War II, the federal government created an emergency program that depended, in part, on state departments of education to train 7.5 million skilled workers. New programs in the American South have been modeled on America's wartime effort to upgrade workers' skills, with local governments and private firms sharing in design and management. In Michigan, a new consortium of 16 towns, using federal funds and private know-how, has halped half the region's workers displaced from jobs making steel, cars, and chemicals, providing them with counseling, classroom and on-the-job training, and job search assistance to help them get back to work. These precedents, along with others, suggest that public-private partnerships, guided by federal and state governments and fulfilled by business, labor, and individuals, can be tailored to the needs of the American work force for training and retraining.