The `No Collar' Work Force

As traditional jobs disappear and markets shift, workers need access to regular retraining and one-stop career centers to keep them employable

WHEN you ask children what they want to be when they grow up, they don't say, ``I want a boring job where the only thing I look forward to is Friday.''

The continued success of American society and the free-market system depends on all of its people having access to meaningful, productive, and rewarding work. But for many people, being willing and able to work is not enough to get or keep a job.

Technology shifts, defense conversion, corporate downsizing to improve productivity, and foreign competition are dislocating millions of workers. These people haven't been laid off; their jobs are gone. And while new jobs are being created, they are for a very different kind of worker.

These structural changes demand a new system of job training for the unemployed or those threatened with loss of their jobs. The Reemployment Act of 1994, now pending before Congress, calls for a shift from an unemployment system to a reemployment system. Dislocated workers must acquire skills that can transfer to other jobs as the market dictates.

Unfortunately, many dislocated workers (as well as new entrants) are not adequately prepared for the jobs being created by information technology. For them, the lack of necessary skills is often a ticket to poverty. Many others are barred by lack of education, lack of hope, and lack of access to these new jobs and this new world of work - a world that needs their perspectives and their energy.

The Reemployment Act should erase some of these barriers. It proposes consolidation and replacement of six existing programs, each designed to address different causes of worker dislocation. We need to go further. We must create ``one-stop'' career centers for all federal job training programs - centers where dislocated workers can receive counseling, assessment, job search assistance, labor market information, and other basic transition services. Like any well-run business, these programs should be required to meet acceptable performance standards.

But legislation is only a partial solution. Businesses must take the lead in eliminating other barriers in a work force rapidly evolving away from the traditional blue- or white-collar categories. The new ``no collar'' jobs being created demand skills in technology and decisionmaking, plus personal insight.

For American business to remain competitive, we must give workers access to continual retraining. There must be access to employment by an increasingly diverse talent pool, and access by workers to power over the work they do, which means a new approach to management as well.

WHILE legislative and business initiatives can create a framework for worker retraining, each of us is responsible for his or her own career. Everyone who works must take the initiative for planning and training for multiple job and career changes over a lifetime.

But business leaders can do much better in creating access to the full range of job opportunities for an increasingly diverse work force. Diversity can be a great American strength - a source of creativity and innovation and energy - but only if we take responsibility for removing the barriers to full participation and opportunity for women, people of color, older workers, and all who encounter discrimination in hiring, training, pay, and promotion.

Finally, we need to develop an approach to management that gives workers the satisfaction that only comes from having power over their work.

We have done ourselves a disservice by cultivating the idea that work is awful and leisure is wonderful. Enlightened managers can communicate a different message about work. They can help people derive satisfaction from the daily experience of doing a good job and learning something.

Companies like Boeing, Motorola, and Texas Instruments are creating high-performance workplaces by investing in ``human capital'' - innovative programs that encourage worker empowerment, total quality, and improved productivity.

We are just beginning to evolve a management concept that enables no-collar workers to do their best. This approach will be characterized by lifelong learning for employees working on self-directed teams, where the manager is both a team member and a coach. Workers want more than a paycheck for the large part of their lives they spend on the job; they want their jobs to be a source of satisfaction, creativity, development. They will respond with extraordinary dedication to work they see as their own.

Continual training, viewing a diverse work force as an opportunity and a responsibility, and an approach to management that moves from controlling to empowering are at the core of what business must do to make the system work. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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