THE two high-ranking Japanese officials who blamed America's declining economy on our workers got it all wrong. The problem with our economy has nothing to do with American workers lacking a work ethic. It has almost everything to do with a national failure to prepare our front-line workers to be efficient, productive participants in our economy.
American attitudes toward skilled labor are far behind those of our economic competitors. Too many employers see blue-collar workers not as assets who can be trained to adapt to changing conditions, but as assembly-line units with little to offer besides eight hours a day of hard work. Our educational system reinforces this view by treating non-college preparation as an educational orphan and refusing to recognize that 70 percent of jobs in this country do not require a college degree.
The result is that American businesses operate at a competitive disadvantage because we are failing to nurture and train the majority of those in the workplace.
Consider the plight of the average blue-collar male. Bored with school and knowing that graduates rarely earn higher starting salaries than dropouts, he leaves school at 17 and gets a full-time fast-food job at 50 cents higher than the minimum wage. In the next eight years, he drifts from job to job seeking higher wages.
When he marries at age 26, he learns a skill to qualify for higher pay and better benefits. After classes at a community college or professional technical school, he finds semi-skilled employment at a large company. Although on-the-job training teaches him to operate a highly technical machine and provides him a decent living wage, it is not enough to shield his job from layoffs brought on by overseas competition and a declining market share.
This story is all too familiar to hard-hit blue-collar communities. Our typical worker ends up with few skills that can be transferred to other industrial jobs, and lands in a lower-paying service-sector slot that does not pay enough to support his family. His personal tragedy is really a larger tragedy for our economy. Unless the business community, with help from government, builds a system to provide high-skill, high-wage jobs for young Americans who go into the workplace without a college degree, we will continue to fall behind our better-prepared foreign competitors and leave ourselves vulnerable to long-term economic decline.
What we need is a new approach that makes a well-educated, well-trained work force a top national priority. The good news is that a number of corporations have recognized the need and are implementing a new path for our hypothetical worker.
In this new system, our worker, at age 16 and accompanied by his parents, will meet with a trained counselor at high school and determine that he would prefer a manufacturing career to college. The teenager is then interviewed by several local manufacturers. One offers a part-time job on the factory floor, promising full-time employment when the student completes more advanced schooling.
When he graduates from high school, he works half-time in the factory as a second-step apprentice, and as a condition of employment pursues a technical degree at a community college. At work, he learns to operate a state-of-the-art machine; at the community college, he learns theory and practical applications.
Upon completing this phase, he becomes the junior member of a work team responsible for design, production, and product quality. Throughout his career, he learns new skills, attends classes, and undergoes intensive periods of training when technologies or products change. In all likelihood, companies that follow this system will be successful, and the worker will have a lifetime job with lifetime training. If for some reason he is laid off, finding new employment will not be hard.
To ensure that all American workers are educated and trained at world-class levels, businesses must sell the notion that high schools and community colleges must serve the 70 percent of the work force that does not graduate from college. They must also adopt a philosophy of lifelong learning and training for workers.
Neither quality nor efficiency can be achieved without a well-educated, well-trained work force. Without these structural changes, the United States will become a second-tier economy early next century. Contrary to our Japanese critics, it won't be the American worker's fault.