Shifting into hi-tech

The signs of the times are everywhere. Christmas trees bulge with gleaming electronic toys - from computers that analyze family finances and teach French or Spanish to games that go zip and bang. Parents are demanding computers for their children in elementary schools. Colleges are beginning to require that students own their own calculator or computer. High technology, in short, has invaded the age. And the message coming through loud and clear for the American people - and its leaders - is that the US badly needs a national policy to promote its rightful place in the economy of the future.

Today's recession dramatizes the urgent need. Unemployment is at 10.8 percent. This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced that it expected US joblessness to hover in the 10 percent range until the summer of 1984. At stake is not just ensuring the prosperity of the nation's existing electronics-high technology base - as found in California's Silicon Valley, in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and along Route 128 encircling Boston - but fostering expansion of the US economy generally.

In the current national political discussion about ''reindustrialization'' and how best to salvage older, intensive worker-based US industries such as automobiles and steel it is sometimes forgotten that the United States is to a large extent already an electronic information-based society. More Americans are employed in the information-service sector of the economy than are employed in basic manufacturing. High technology states such as Massachusetts and Texas have relatively high employment levels as compared with manufacturing states such as Michigan and Illinois.

How, then, does the US get from its mix of declining manufacturing industries and pockets of high technology firms to a point where high technology firms play a dominant economic role? Some economists say that a starting point is recognizing that the jobless pool constitutes two categories of persons.

* A high 40 percent of the unemployed are under age 25. And half of that segment are teenagers having few technical skills.

* The rest of the unemployment roster tends to comprise largely skilled, proven workers in the older, troubled manufacturing industries. Yet, because of lessened demand in these older industries - as well as the downsizing of products, as in the auto industry - these industries will never again need the large labor forces of the past.

A number of tasks therefore confront government and industry:

1. Specific long-range job training programs have to be formulated for both unskilled and skilled persons. The Job Training Partnership Act of 1982, passed recently by Congress, is a step in the right direction. But even administration officials such as Martin Feldstein concede that such a joint federal-business-educational program is only a first step. Other steps will have to include direct retraining programs by government and older industries; more technical training programs in secondary schools; and a change in the curriculum of American education to include more electronics, mathematics, and sciences. A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology called for greater cooperation between industry and education to turn the young person of today into the skilled worker of the future.

2. Congress needs to enact a new version of the Morrill Act of 1862 aimed at underwriting science and engineering training. The original Morrill Act funded the nation's land grant colleges and in effect underwrote agricultural and economic training for the industrial expansion of the last century. The need for engineers is particularly acute. Engineering graduates currently make up only about 6 percent of all bachelor's degrees in the US, compared to 21 percent in Japan, and 37 percent in West Germany.

3. The federal government and private industry must devote more dollars to research and development. The need is pronounced for basic and applied research.

4. Tax laws, both at the federal and state level, have to be modified to encourage formation of venture capital. Currently, most dollars given over to investment in high technology firms are clustered in California and along the Eastern seaboard.

That the nature and thrust of the American economy are changing there can be no doubt. The only question is whether US policymakers, industrial leaders, and educators will have the vision, imagination, and will to move briskly with the times. If the United States dallies, there are others only too eager to capture the lead in the exciting age of high technology.

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