THE jittery American work force - ranging from 18-year-old entrants into the labor pool to established workers struggling to keep up with their industries' advancing technologies - is emerging as the new cause celebre for politicians and pundits alike.
Last week, the Clinton administration sent an emissary to California's Silicon Valley to determine how newly laid-off employees of Apple Computer are faring in their quests for new jobs. Then, in his State of Union address Tuesday, President Clinton acknowledged workers' job-security anxieties by proposing a package of fairly traditional Democratic solutions: continuation of the earned income tax credit, a higher minimum wage, job-training programs, and student loans.
Republicans, too, have sensed that American workers could become the new silent majority of the 1996 election. Many GOP presidential candidates have hammered home the theme that hefty payroll and income taxes and costly regulations constrict business expansion and limit payroll expansion. The GOP offers up a host of tax-policy changes and deficit-reduction measures designed to speed the nation's economic growth.
For the past several years, the economic landscape has been littered by hundreds of thousands of workers dumped by corporations like AT&T, IBM, and others intent on downsizing toward efficiency - contributing to workers' unease about their futures. Millions more Americans appear to be ill-equipped to take on entry-level slots in the manufacturing and service industries, or are simply stuck at the bottom rung of a career ladder that should otherwise lead to higher pay.
For some private analysts looking beyond the political proscriptions, the gloom is not completely warranted. Business advocates, such as Ken Deavers of the Employment Policy Foundation, challenge the claims of growing income disparities. It's unfair, Mr. Deavers says, ''to conclude from an examination of trends in real wages that workers are worse off now than they were in 1979.'' Non-cash benefits, such as health insurance and pension funds, should be considered part of workers' compensation, yet they are not included in the assessments of the past 25 years of declining real wages.
But for a growing number of job seekers, those benefits are not part of the equation. One-fifth of today's work force, ranging from temporary workers to independent contractors paid on a per-project basis, are hired on terms that exclude health insurance, pension plans, and other benefits. Whether part-time or full-time, these employees have no job security.
This sense of eroding job security has put a damper on the overall economy, contends Stanley Nollen, professor of human resources at Georgetown University and management consultant Helen Axel of Lebanon, N.J. In their new book ''Managing Contingent Workers,'' the two argue that ''contingent workers [temporary workers who receive no or limited benefits] are probably going to be a little less productive than regular employees.'' For the most part, they have lower skills, less education, training, and experience.
The roughly two-thirds of all high-school graduates who go on to some form of higher education can also create better opportunities for themselves, asserts Dawn Oberman, director of employment information at the National Association of Colleges and Employers in Bethlehem, Pa.
''Our latest study of a cross section of employers shows that 58.6 percent of those entry-level graduates hired last year had field work or internship experience,'' Ms. Oberman says. Enrollees at vocational training schools, colleges, and universities are increasingly aware of employers' expectations. Because of that, Oberman adds, the outlook for college graduates is improving. While job requirements are tougher, she says, ''students today have no excuse not to know what's expected of them'' given the high level of coordination between business and schools.
The continuation of corporate layoffs for years to come will require a great investment in worker training well after a new entrant is hired, predicts Charles Fombrun, professor at New York University's Stern School of Business and author of a new book on corporate-worker relations. American labor is increasingly ''disposable,'' Mr. Fombrun says, given the convergence of technological advancements and pressure from low-wage foreign competitors. Other countries, from industrialized Germany to developing Indonesia, are making huge investments in workers, he says.