The way to jobs

Back-to-work means back-to-school.

This might be a slogan for the urgency of education to aid today's jobless - some 30 million people in the Western industrial countries alone. And to forestall unemployment shock in the future.

The demanded education ranges far beyond the schools. It reaches to the homes and workplaces where individual study and organized training and retraining can take place. But perhaps never before has there been more symbolic clout in America's return to the classroom on the heels of Labor Day. Tomorrow's dramatic array of new jobs - as old jobs fade - requires preparation now.

The danger to be avoided is that recession tempts employers and governments to stint on education and training - the development of human capital - just when it is most needed. A vicious cycle can result. A present shortage of skills heads off investment in industry or services that would create more jobs. And a failure to prepare workers during hard times leads to a future shortage of skills when better times return.

The need to prevent such an outcome is heightened in a rapidly changing labor scene during what has been called the second industrial revolution. The rise of computer technology is accompanied by a massive shift of the workforce from manufacturing to information and other services.

Already the help-wanted ads hint at the new market for skills. They are not all in the sci-fi realm. The global increase in population will place a premium on housing, not only new but rehabilitated. According to one occupation forecast, the United States alone will have a demand for 1,750,000 housing rehabilitation technicians in 1990. What about the robot takeover of manufacturing? The care and feeding of robots will produce US jobs for an estimated 1,500,000 technicians. As solar and other new energy sources are more extensively marketed, there will be 1,500,000 jobs for energy technicians. Never mind the new opportunities in lasers, genetic engineering, holography, and other emerging fields.

The common denominator is skill. The promise is that the elimination of jobs through automation will be matched by a rise in new jobs for those who are ready.

Japan is one example of how the transition can be smoothed through training and retraining. It has even managed the world's only increase in manufacturing jobs - 24 percent since 1979 - while at the same time sharply increasing productivity, output per man hour.

West Germany, too, has been concentrating on human capital, in both the teen-age and later years. It has long mandated vocational training for young people leaving school before 18. More than 90 percent of these become apprentices receiving on-the-job training. In 1980 the government tried a substantial subsidy plan for helping workers already on the job to learn new processes. Business enterprises were so responsive that more had to be done. By these and other means, the vicious cycle mentioned earlier is replaced by its opposite. The availability of skilled people generates growth, and the growth then creates a demand for more skilled people.

Of course, all this is but part of the work picture. The jobless can be victims not only of lacks in training but of protectionism, resource shifts, and other matters beyond their control. Sometimes those German teen-age apprentices learn skills which turn out to be in oversupply.

The answer to joblessness lies not only in training for technology but in seeing where human work and skill can be used in preference to technology. It should not be forgotten that the trend toward glittering electronics is accompanied by a trend toward appreciation of simplicity, quality, and craftsmanship in a traditional sense.

Sometimes people have deliberately chosen jobs because they would always learn something new in them. With this frame of mind there will be satisfaction rather than burden in the coming pattern of having to learn something new in order to keep a job.

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