Tomorrow's shortage: workers not jobs

Public opinion surveys indicate that, as the deepening recession causes millions to lose their jobs, fear of unemployment is overtaking concern about inflation in the minds of the American people.

But down the road, as we move further into the decade of the 1980s, the dominant economic problem in this country may well be a shortage not of jobs but of workers, especially skilled workers.

Labor, natural resources, and capital are the three primary factors of production which support our prosperity and standard of living. A shortage of labor would be a new agony for Americans who struggled throughout the past decade to overcome recurring shortages of natural resources and capital.

Through conservation and recycling, vigorous exploration and technical innovation, our society has scored quite a record in overcoming natural resource scarcities.

Capital? United States investment in modern productive capacity lagged during the 1970s and this country began losing its competitive edge. But the savings and investment provisions in the 1981 tax-cut bill offer substantial new incentives to save, to invest, to innovate, and to produce. Capital, once the spindly leg of the productive triad, may well become the strongest.

But even abundant supplies of resources and investment capital cannot restore our competitive edge without the third element -- labor. How can I write about a labor shortage when the secretary of commerce and chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers seem engaged in a contest to see who can unfurl the gloomiest unemployment rate forecast? How can I talk shortage when a million men and women in just the past few months have joined already long lines before employment offices in practically every state in the union?

While it is obvious that unemployment rates are far too high, two fundamental forces are about to transform the period beginning with the mid '80s into one of chronic labor shortage. On a chart, these two forces, demography and technology, would be moving in opposite directions.

Because of the post-baby-boom decline in our birthrate, reflected in the steady closing of elementary schools in community after community throughout the nation, our labor force has already begun growing at a decreasing rate. In fact, if there is no easing of retirement trends, our labor force growth rate beyond 1985 will drop to only one-half the rate attained in recent years. The number of 16-24-year-olds in 1990 will actually be 1.5 million fewer than in 1980.

The looming entry of the so-called ''baby-bust'' generation tells only one portion of the labor story. While the demographic curve slopes downward, the technological curve is moving upward with unprecedented rapidity. In the past most of us have assumed that the benign guidance of Adam Smith's invisible hand kept the supply of skilled workers generally in line with the growth in skilled job openings. That assumption may have been correct at one time as technology changed in small increments. But it is certainly not true today for many occupations.

Our society entered the 1980s on the wave of a revolution in the application of electronic devices to society's work -- a revolution that has been maturing for decades and now explodes everywhere around us. This decade will witness a more dramatic change in the way our society produces goods and services than any previous decade in history. As a result, skilled labor openings in a number of areas are running far ahead of supply, and we are seeing only the tip of the iceberg.

A million new jobs for computer personnel will be created by 1990, yet the Labor Department says we train less than 50,000 annually. Registered nurses, machine repairers, engineering professors, tool and die makers -- the list of skilled occupations facing dire shortages this decade is long, and the number of prospective job vacancies runs to the millions. We do not now have men and women in the training pipeline to fill more than a small percentage of those jobs. Nor do we have the training capability to train more. How are these jobs going to be efficiently filled, if they can be filled at all?

We must consider redirecting a portion of our nation's education and training system -- from vocational schools through graduate schools -- to deal with the need for more skilled craftsmen, computer personnel, and workers in other supply-short skilled occupations.

The need for redirecting our training and education system becomes even more pressing in light of competitive pressures from abroad that are pushing US industry to increased use of robots and other machinery. This trend, while it will stretch out the existing pool of skilled labor over the long run, will make the shortage of skilled workers more critical in the short run. The trend also means that labor retraining - the teaching of new job skills to displaced workers - must be emphasized in the manpower policies of both government and the private sector.

Our skilled labor shortage is not a theoretical crisis but a real one, immediate and urgent. With many skilled jobs requiring years of training to master, it is a crisis our nation must address now.

After reading his poem, ''Provide, Provide'' Robert Frost liked to add, ''Or someone else will provide for ya.'' Unless we wish to endure the inflation and dislocation of chronic labor shortages by leaving to other nations the expanding work of the future, and rest content with yesterday's receding work, we had better begin a serious national effort to provide for ourselves.

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