Many of the nation's largest employers are anxious as they scan the horizon of the available labor force. Their concerns are predicated on population trends, the increasing complexity of new jobs, and the rising number of high school dropouts and illiterates in society.
But sociologists and economists say their anxiety may translate into opportunity for many unemployed Americans -- in particular, for chronically out-of-work black youths -- if they can be properly trained for the careers of the future. In part this opportunity springs from the declining number of young workers and the increasing demand for their services.
The biggest worry, however, remains the dropout rate for high school students. This is running 27 percent nationwide, meaning 11 million of the 40 million students in high school will never graduate. Sixty percent of the dropouts are functionally illiterate. Nationwide, 13 percent of all adults cannot read or write English.
There is growing concern that employees of the future won't have the skills for the complex jobs coming on line. Some employers, including the military, say the effects of that mismatch may be felt in the years ahead.
Since 1981, the proportion of Army recruits who are high school graduates has risen from 57 percent to 91 percent. But Lt. Col. John Cullen, chief of public affairs for the United States Army Recruiting Command, is worried about what the quality of Army recruits will be in a few years.
``We're concerned with drawing enough high school graduates who score in the top half of the Army's aptitude test. It looks like times are going to be tough for Army recruiting,'' he says.
The military will be receiving stiff competition from private business for qualified entry-level workers.
``Business is really faced with a diminishing supply of entry-level workers over the next 10 years,'' says William Kohlberg, president of the National Alliance of Business. ``And if that diminishing supply is poorer quality than it has been in the past, then . . . productivity suffers.
The alliance recently released a report entitled ``Employment Policies: Looking to the Year 2000.'' It says most of today's workers will need to acquire totally new skills or additional training just to remain employed.
Mr. Kohlberg says the current situation leaves employers with a couple of options. One is to work with the public schools to try to keep more young people in school and give them a good basic high school education.
``Failing that, if employers want these workers in the entry level, employers may very well have to train them and give them basic literacy on the job. In other words, become an educational institution,'' Kohlberg says.
Many of the largest employers have already taken that step. Xerox president David Kearns says big business is spending more than $30 billion a year on remedial education and training programs for employees. That's half the amount spent by all colleges and universities.
But Mr. Kearns doesn't see that as business's responsibility. He recently told a gathering of business leaders in Washington: ``When business does remedial teaching, we're doing the schools' product recall work for them.''
Kearns and other business leaders are most concerned about the shortage of skilled workers in the high-tech fields.
The US Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 16 million new jobs will be created by 1995. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations are related to computers and engineering -- including computer programmers, systems analysts, and electrical and electronics engineers.
That doesn't mean those fields will create the most new jobs. Cashiers, registered nurses, and janitors will account for the largest number of new employees. But those areas of employment are not expanding as rapidly as high-tech is.
Kohlberg says it's hard to measure the impact of new technology on the workplace, but he thinks it's probably being underestimated and ``computer literacy will become part of what we know as basic literacy.''
A case in point: At WestPoint Pepperell's Lanier textile mill in Huguley, Ala., plant manager John Hurston notes that ``just about every piece of new equipment we buy these days has some kind of microprocessor or is hooked to some type of computer.'' John Eldridge, a textile worker who has been with the plant 19 years, observes that ``the younger generation is going to have to have the knowledge I have now just to get in the plant.''
To meet this need, Marvin Cetron, president of Forecasting International, a consulting firm in Arlington, Va., and author of ``Jobs of the Future'' (McGraw-Hill, 1984), advocates overhauling high school vocational education.
``We have to have them [students] understand a little bit about how high technology works, how a robot works, what a computer does, how to use a computer, what computer-aided design and manufacturing are, generally how to utilize the latest equipment being designed today,'' says Mr. Cetron.
He complains that high schools are still teaching students how to weld and reshape blocks of wood when automation is replacing jobs requiring those skills.
That sentiment is echoed by Dale Parnell, president of the National Association of Community and Junior Colleges: ``I think high school students have made enough gun racks and footstools to last us a lifetime.''
Mr. Parnell is calling for creation of a high-tech-oriented vocational education program in the junior and senior years of high school that could be coupled with the two-year community colleges. He says that would create an entirely new four-year program that would give young people the skills they need to compete in today's job market.
Most of these new blue-collar high-tech jobs will not require a bachelor's degree, but post-high-school education and training are now considered essential even for an entry-level job.
Parnell maintains that the education reform movement has limited its focus to college-bound students, and he refers to the remaining students as the ``neglected majority.'' He has written a book with that title (Community College Press, Washington, 1985).
Kearns at Xerox says the biggest US concern should be the education imbalance: ``I'm not exaggerating when I say that the fate of our economy, as well as our society and basic way of life, depends on narrowing the education gap.''
He doesn't limit his criticism of public education to inner-city schools, however. He accuses suburban schools of locking affluent kids into a cycle of underachievement.
John Jacob, president of the National Urban League, is optimistic about that black youth on the inner-city street corner. While the youngster may be immersed in poverty, Mr. Jacob says there is a message of hope and a challenge for that child.
``If you go to school, if you get educated, we guarantee you there will be a place for you and a way for you to go to college, and a way for you to get a good job,'' he says.
Jacob calls the coming years the ``new frontier for opportunity'' and is leading the Urban League in a national education initiative. He wants communities to become the support system for inner-city kids.
While they represent roughly 12 percent of the population, blacks will account for 20 percent of the new work force over the next decade. Jacob says that churches, clubs, and organizations have to step forward and become surrogate parents to make sure black kids stay in school and have a chance to succeed in tomorrow's working world.
``This may be the first time in our history that black people will be in demand,'' Jacob says. ``If we have the skills and abilities, we can't be denied the opportunity to participate.''
Clint Jones is a reporter with MonitoRadio, the broadcast service of The Christian Science Monitor.