Futurists gather to forecast opportunities in the emerging job market

In a recent two-day conference on working sponsored here by the World Future Society, futurists and market analysts brought a vision of tomorrow, where the world - they say - belongs to those who are educated and flexible.

There (and ''there'' means anywhere from 1990 to 2000), most of us will be living in two-income family units, working in the information sector manipulating high-tech machines (computers and their peers) to create graphics, designs, simulations, and other untold wonders.

Meanwhile, we'll be eating at fast-food restaurants (which will hire a million more workers by the year 2000), driving cars produced by tomorrow's steel-collar workers (robots, whose repair will employ another 2 million), and, perhaps, visiting geriatric counselors (a job with a future, says futurist Marvin Cetron).

And we'll be dropping out of the work force every four to five years, they say, to retool and retrain - while our spouses support us. The people doing all this training (a growing field) will be better paid and better qualified than today's teachers and will themselves require periodic retraining.

Some of this breathless scenario checks out now. We are already in an information age - and have been for years, says David Snyder, life-styles editor of the World Future Society's magazine and ''consulting futurist.'' He pulls out a National Science Foundation-funded study to prove it - some 51.5 percent of US workers were employed in the information sector in 1980, it says.

High-technology fields have grown so much over the last few years, reports Mr. Snyder, that 48 states now have some kind of state committee or individual actively recruiting high-tech industries to their area. They're also starting to look for ways to educate local workers capable of working in these firms.

But all the growth in computer-related jobs, impressive as it is, only accounted for 5 percent of the total job growth from 1970 to 1980, warns Ronald Kutscher, associate commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And the countless new fields widely touted by futurists, he says glumly, will not necessarily produce a large number of jobs.

Janitors, truck drivers, food service workers, nurses and aides, cashiers, sales clerks, and secretaries - will account for a quarter of the total job growth over the next decade, Commissioner Kutscher says.

He also points out that some of the new fields opening up - like robot technicians - still have the lid half shut. ''Companies are now hiring general machine repair people who are also able to service the few robots they own,'' he says. ''In many of these firms, there simply aren't enough robots to require a full-time technician.''

And the commissioner says that people have been burned in the past by following what looked like the natural wave of the future. ''I went around the country five years ago telling people to get into the environmental field,'' he admits. ''Now I receive letters from PhDs in ecology and bioecology who have invested a great deal of time and money in their field, and can't find jobs.''

James O'Toole, head of the Twenty Year Forecast Project at the University of Southern California's Center of Futures Research, counsels skepticism. ''No one - not horserace touts, Federal Energy Department planners, Chrysler executives, or the Hunt brothers - has a worse forecasting record than labor economists,'' he says.

''Labor economists,'' Professor O'Toole points out, ''are the folks who were still predicting teacher shortages in the late 1960s.''

The fact is, there will be new jobs in the future, with close to 20 million more people looking for work, says Norman Feingold, author of ''Emerging Careers: New Occupations for the Year 2000.''

Admittedly, not all of these people will find jobs - some futurists talk about an 8.5 percent jobless rate being considered ''full employment,'' the way 4 percent unemployment was accepted in the 1960s.

Says Dr. Feingold, practicing optimist: ''Many . . . new careers open up because of social changes. You take something like the overcrowding of our jails. Any way they solve that, it's bound to result in new jobs,'' he believes - more jailers, more counselors, bigger jails (and more construction work), or more mental health people managing criminals outside the jail system.

Professor O'Toole isn't sure how far people should go along with the futurists' bright scenarios. ''Although most futurists have been spared the mind-addling effects of a traditional economic education, most members of this breed, too, have pathetic track records when it comes to workplace forecasts,'' he says.

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