Speculate for a moment. To what length might business, government, and educational institutions be willing to go, if workers could be made more productive through their efforts?
There's currently a great deal of dialogue on that very subject. And if dialogue translates into fresh thinking, and then into substantive action, the benefit to business, industry, and also to workers could be great.
As much as one-quarter of New England's current work force will retire by the end of the decade. At the same time, Massachusetts has the lowest birthrate in the nation, and will see significantly fewer young workers entering the job market.
Yet there's not exactly a shortage of people. There are flocks of available people: retired workers, the underemployed, the untrained, the unskilled, and the unemployed. Twenty percent of the people who live in Boston, have incomes below the federal poverty line. All of them could benefit from serving more productive, more useful roles in the labor market.
As Boston swings toward service-sector jobs - in finance, insurance, real estate, and professional services - employers will need more workers who can think, compute, write, and are flexible enough to move from job to job during the course of their careers.
How then, is today's labor force - highly concentrated in unskilled, or semi-skilled blue-collar workers - to meet the needs of the changing job market? The answer is found in one word - training.
Training people to take productive places in the labor market (or retraining mid-career workers) is an idea on the minds of many people these days. Yet how it is to be accomplished, and who is going to do it are questions that remain to be answered. The buck has been passed ad infinitum.
Government will help with the training, it says, but can't do it alone. The job is too big, the resources too few.
Most colleges and universities say they're not set up to train and retrain workers. Semester systems, tenure agreements, and academic priorities get in the way.
And for the most part, business doesn't really want to train its workers. In fact, one leading corporate education specialist says employee training is often the least attractive option open to business.
Efforts by individual organizations, and between the three sectors, are working in certain areas. But by all accounts, such efforts are not enough to provide an adequately trained work force for the next two decades.
A stronger link between the three sectors seems to offer the best hope for success. That was one conclusion presented recently at a conference, sponsored by the New England Board of Higher Education, on retraining midcareer workers. At the John F. Kennedy Library, participants from business, government, and education discussed what should be done to build and maintain a strong labor force in New England.
Scholarly papers were presented; panel members expostulated. Yet perhaps the most telling exchange occurred between a disgruntled Maine legislator and a leader in corporate education.
Rep. Edith Beaulieu (D) said that except for new demographic statistics, she was hearing the same things she's been hearing for the past 15 years. ''Business is in the same place,'' she said. Funding for education is the same. Why should she expect anything new to come from this conference? From the number of heads bobbing in the room, it was clear other people agreed with her.
The answer, said Badi G. Foster, president of the Aetna Institute for Corporate Education, does not lie in finger-pointing. It is not found in asking, ''How are you going to accomplish this?'' Rather, he says, the need is for more leaders - in individual corporations, educational institutions, government agencies, and legislatures. Much more could be accomplished, he said, if leaders display vision and trust.
One example of a successful job-training venture is the Boston Private Industry Council. The PIC held its fourth annual meeting last week, announcing that more than 640 adults were placed in entry-level jobs through PIC's efforts during the past year. In addition, 355 adults were trained in skills such as word processing, data entry, cable-TV installation, and accounting. And about 1, 200 Boston high school students (many of them disadvantaged) obtained summer jobs.
The PIC achieved this by marshaling resources from the business community, utilizing the bureaucratic muscle of the city's Neighborhood Development and Employment Agency, and collaborating with the Boston school department.
William J. Spring, president of the PIC, readily admits that such accomplishments are small in scale. Indeed, he says, they affect only 3 percent of Boston's disadvantaged. Yet this effort indicates what can be done.
The PIC is not content simply to plant high school students in short-term summer jobs, or move older workers through the job-training revolving door. The PIC recognizes that another benefit often accompanies job training - better morale.
Mr. Spring says the goal of the summer job program is to inspire students to do better. Right now, he says, few Boston students see meaningful jobs on the horizon, so there is little incentive for them to persevere in school. A responsible summer job or an entry-level job in a professional environment, Spring says, tends to change a worker's outlook.
Rather than being content with a minimum-wage, dead-end perspective, Spring says, workers often gain a sense of self-confidence and self-worth. They find that they can learn, and can aspire to higher things. This may include college attendance, Spring adds, another thing Boston schoolchildren generally do not look forward to.
Such steps as training people for entry-level jobs and teaching them basic skills are vital. Yet it would be wise for those giving thought to this basic-training process to also consider the broader social benefits that can accompany more comprehensive training.