Jobs for the future

The age of the computer is at last here. The great irony in this presidential election of 1984 is that neither presidential candidate - both of whom claim to represent America's aspirations for ''the future'' - is fundamentally addressing that issue.

The omission is unfortunate. The technological changes sweeping through American industry - dramatically underscored by advances in robotics and computerization - will have far-reaching implications regarding the workplace, the type of industries that will dominate American society in years to come, and , most important, the nature and availability of jobs.

Consider just this: By 1990, according to an estimate by a committee of the AFL-CIO, there could well be some 100,000 robots in US industry directly performing tasks now undertaken by US manufacturing and clerical workers. In 1983, there were some 6,000 robots in use in American industry. In 1990, again, it is estimated, there could be some 20 million computers. Last year, there were some 2 million desktop computers.

Let there be no misunderstanding. The technological-robotics-computer-revolution that's under way holds enormous promise for the American economy. No one could ''stop'' the changes even if he wished to. But what is necessary is a more thoughtful discussion by the candidates of the global economic transformation now taking place - and how that transformation can be directed so that all Americans take part in the change.

The first step, it would seem, is a clear recognition of just what is happening. Republicans argue that jobs have increased under the Reagan presidency. And, yes, they have gone up. Civilian employment, by one measure, increased by some 7.5 million jobs between January 1981 and September 1984. Democrats, however, counter that more jobs were created under the previous Carter administration. And, in fact, civilian employment grew by some 11 million jobs in the four years between January 1977 and January 1981. But both sets of figures fail to pinpoint the deeper changes under way:

* From industry to service jobs: Two key dates are involved. The first is July 1982. That month, employment in service industries surpassed employment in goods production. The second key date is the year 1983 as a whole. That year white males, the traditional ''breadwinners'' of the American family, fell below 50 percent of the total work force - to 49.8 percent.

In short, the bulk of jobs that have been created during the past decade have come in service-related industries. And to a large extent they have been filled by women and minorities.

* The decline of traditional industries: Some 1.3 million jobs in manufacturing have been lost since 1979. The reasons are varied: high labor costs, making US products noncompetitive with lower-wage-scale overseas goods. Poor quality controls. The high value of the dollar, which again makes US goods expensive vis-a-vis overseas products. Added to all this is the ability of companies (and governments) abroad to set up their own high-technology, computer-oriented plants that are in many cases more advanced than US plants. Japan, for example, leads the world in robotics.

* Lower-paying service jobs. Granted, many service-related jobs, in such professions as accounting, finance, and communications, are comparable in pay to older manufacturing jobs, or pay even better. But most service jobs now created pay far less than older blue-collar jobs. Some economists believe the differential will increase during the rest of the decade, particularly in those jobs held by women and minorities.

What does all this mean for the United States and the American voter in 1984? The candidates must tackle the issue of protectionism, which could make US industries even less competitive than now, even while constricting global trade in general. It would mean that job-training programs had to be developed to aid workers in regions where industries are in marked decline. Recent federal statistics show unemployment persisting at double-digit levels in four states during August, Alabama, Michigan, Mississippi, and West Virginia. Surely, no pockets of high unemployment and economic distress should be allowed to continue in a nation with the enormous wealth and technical expertise of the United States. These are the types of issues the two candidates should be addressing more directly.

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