AMERICA'S next generation of workers will step out of the classroom and into, well, the classroom. That's because businesses in the United States are waking up to the need for more worker education and training. In a speech two months ago, General Motors executive vice-president Alan Smith bragged that the company had spent $1.3 billion on training in the last five years, ``which makes us the country's largest privately funded educational and training institution.''
The move to training is by no means limited to GM. Other automakers have jumped even faster into the fray. Allstate Insurance, already a dedicated training company, expects training per employee to increase 10 to 15 percent by the year 2000.
``The degree and extensiveness of business involvement is at an all-time high,'' says Jeanne Allen, education editor for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. ``And it's not going to get much less until we get better performance in the schools.''
The driving forces for all this are one part demographic, one part technological, and perhaps two parts competitive. First, the number of college-educated entry-level workers is shrinking as the baby-boomers move into mid-career. Second, jobs are getting more technologically sophisticated. Many companies foresee that they will have to dip further and further into the pool of less-educated workers if they are to remain competitive and fill needed positions.
The auto industry is a striking example. Foreign competition forced US automakers to retrain and upgrade their workers' skills. GM was more reluctant to change than most. ``GM's a late learner,'' says Anthony Carnevale, vice-president of the American Society for Training and Development. But ``GM has learned with a vengeance.''
The change in attitudes can be seen throughout GM from the shop floor to the huge Human Resources Center jointly created in 1984 by GM and its largest union, the United Automobile Workers (UAW). The goal, according to officials at the training center, is a work force that is flexible and eager for change and new responsibility.
``We don't want people stretching for a steady state,'' says John R. Furman, codirector of the skilled development and training program at the UAW/GM center. ``Once they recognize that the program works, our only problem is slowing them down.''
The Buick-Oldsmobile-Cadillac assembly plant in Lansing, already a model of cooperation, is seeing even more changes in relationships and work patterns.
`THEY ask a lot of questions,'' says Lyle Sample. As the plant's manufacturing coordinator for production, Mr. Sample says employees are intimately involved in suggesting improvements, working with suppliers, and helping accommodate new technology. ``If you don't listen to them, you're crazy,'' he says, ``because they know what's going on.''
The change in this labor-management relationship didn't happen overnight at GM. The first joint programs in health and safety date back to 1973 and gathered momentum. The real breakthrough came during union negotiations in 1984, when leaders on both sides of the bargaining table agreed to create a joint human resources center. The center now spends $180 million a year on joint training programs (which doesn't take into account various other training efforts sponsored by the company or the UAW).
This flow of money has been a boon to foremen and local union members who recognized the need for more training but had no resources to do it. Now, both sides work together to formulate training programs and then present them to the plant supervisor and the UAW/GM Human Resource Center.
The growth of training at the area human resource center here in Lansing parallels what has taken place throughout GM. The center had six instructors seven years ago; today, there are 100 in the training department.
These instructors teach advanced robotics and the latest in computer-aided design as well as basic skills like reading and math.
Not everyone buys into this new push. ``There's great distress ... great fears about plant idling,'' says Peter Kelly, president of UAW Local 160 in Warren, Mich. ``I think the membership is in a turmoil.''
But company and other union officials disagree, saying that the resistance to these revolutionary changes is lessening.
``Everyone's aware that our jobs are on the line,'' says Jack Richardson, a training and technology representative for UAW Local 662 here. ``If we are going to survive, we need to do these things - and more.''