THE United States is the only industrialized nation without a formal system for developing and disseminating skills standards," says Secretary of Labor Robert Reich. "This is part of the way to guide people into high-wage jobs."
Before speaking to a conference on workplace trends last weekend, Secretary Reich explained some of the details of his proposals for the new American workplace.
"Linking classrooms to the workplace" is vital in order to overcome lack of adequate training, he says. The administration will soon unveil a training plan that includes a component addressing the school-to-work transition, Reich says. Youth apprenticeship programs, similar to those found in other industrial countries, will be part of the proposal.
Last week, Reich announced a program of job certification and skills standards, another component of a broader overhaul package on worker training.
The system aims to redefine job titles and occupational clusters. It is based on a successful program undertaken by the Labor Department and several industry associations.
"We have to connect education standards and certification and then link them to specific skills," Reich says.
Job-training needs are overwhelming many companies, particularly the smaller- and medium-sized firms credited with creating most new jobs.
The need, according to Reich, is for "a new kind of worker" - one he defines as part technician and part generalist.
And Reich is not just looking at blue-collar factory laborers.
Mid-level managers whose unemployment levels have been climbing past 4 percent are part of the problem. They are not equipped to handle many tasks in corporations that have had to downsize.
Reich says that new types of work on upgraded personal computers will constitute core tasks at both service companies and manufacturing firms. Only a "high-skills, high-performance" workplace is competitive, he adds.
What the secretary describes as a "mismatch of jobs and skills" is linked to other longer-term quandaries as well. Although routine factory jobs have largely given way to "jobs of the mind," wages are still deteriorating, he says. Median wages dropped from $409 weekly in 1979 to $381 today (in constant dollars).
Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Northeast-Midwest Congressional Coalition's manufacturing task force, says he agrees with the administration's training priorities.
Mr. Meehan says that workers are not prepared for the enormous changes going on.
"About 5 out of 6 applicants for manufacturing jobs are rejected on the basis of inadequate skills, education, or training," he says.
The population that does not go to college or drops out of school without basic literacy skills is a particular focus for Reich, who calls the current situation a "completely unacceptable condition" for the competitive 1990s economic mix.
Some in Congress say that a complete overhaul of the nation's training system is required to integrate both evolving company needs and to address structural unemployment.
Rep. Bob Franks (R) of New Jersey says that "cooperation between labor and business" will guide a new policy.
The congressional coalition will hold hearings around the country to try to develop a new consensus on this issue. The coalition is considering options including:
* Worker empowerment and roles in shop-floor decisions.
* Skills standards and certification linked to education.
* New funding sources for training.
* Creating technology review labor-management committees.
* "One-stop-shopping" approaches to training and job-seeking.
On the critical funding issue, some in Congress and the administration say that using unemployment insurance contributions is one viable path. The state of New Jersey already uses this approach.