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Scholars Question Assumptions About Training for 'High Tech'

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Washington--Although schools and businesses are gearing up to train workers for highly specialized jobs in high-technology industries, the major demand for workers in the next decade will not be for computer scientists and engineers but for janitors, nurses' aides, sales clerks, cashiers, nurses, fast-food preparers, secretaries, truck drivers, and kitchen helpers, according to Henry M. Levin, a professor of economics and education at Stanford University.

Mr. Levin was among a group of economists, legislators, government officials, business executives, and scholars who participated last week in panel discussions examining strategies to improve the nation's "human capital" and to train adaptable workers for a rapidly changing economy. The panel meetings were part of a "Public Policy Week" sponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (aei), a Washington-based research organization.

The Stanford scholar argued that those who will work in high-technology industries may not need to be as skilled as many educators and businessmen are predicting.

"Because the technology is sophisticated, we tend to think we need workers who are highly sophisticated as well," Mr. Levin said.

But that commonly held assumption was not validated by his research on workers in California's "Silicon Valley," he noted. Employees there, he said, are discovering that their skills are not being utilized. As a result, many are becoming disappointed and frustrated, and corporations are reporting a high rate of job turnover, frequent absences, drug abuse, and theft of corporate property by workers, according to Mr. Levin.

Mr. Levin and other conference panelists disagreed over whether legislated social changes and government job-training programs would do more to help young people find work than would broader efforts to make improvements within the schools.

More than 50 percent of minority youths are unemployed, compared with about 25 percent of white youths and 10 percent of the adult population, according to Senator Dan Quayle, Republican of Indiana, who co-sponsored the Job Partnership Training Act recently signed into law by President Reagan.

Senator Quayle said the $3.7-billion job-training initiative, which targets aid to school drop-outs as well as unemployed adults, would be effective in combating "structural unemployment and the permanent displacement of workers and disadvantaged youth."

Stop-Gap Measure

But other conference participants, while applauding the new federal program, argued that the legislation is merely a stop-gap measure that will not solve deep-rooted problems. Many disadvantaged inner-city students are unemployable because they lack basic educational skills in mathematics, science, and English, several speakers said.

One participant urged that efforts be made to attack the need for remediation where it starts, at the early levels of education.

"Schools have become remedial institutions," said the sociologist Amitai Etzioni. "Primary and secondary education have to do what parents don't. Then colleges provide the remedial education to make up for what was missed during high school."

Mr. Etzioni, who is University Professor at George Washington University, argued that the educational system has become "top heavy," placing too much emphasis on colleges and not enough on elementary and secondary schools.

"We must work harder to do things right the first time. We cannot continue to do wrong and work backwards to undo the wrong. It's just not efficient," Mr. Etzioni said.

Theodore W. Schultz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at the University of Chicago, added that "improved efficiency of schools in big cities does more for a disadvantaged family than mandated social reforms."

Even if the new job-training legislation is relatively successful, high unemployment among urban mi-nority youths is likely to continue unless the schools can improve their training efforts dramatically, argued Kenneth McClennan, vice president and director of industrial studies for the Committee for Economic Development.

Demographic Statistics

Given demographic statistics and a moderate projection for economic expansion, the number of young people aged 16 to 24 in the labor force will fall by an estimated 1.5 million over the decade, according to a paper released at the conference by Mr. McClennan. But a rapidly growing percentage of those who do seek to enter the workforce will be inner-city minority youths.

"From 1985 to 1990, the rate of entry of minority youth will be at least double that for whites," Mr. McLennan said.

"The long-term solution to the hard-core youth unemployment problem may have little to do with employment and training policies," he added. "Unless the educational system is able to improve the basic educational skills [mathematics, science, English, and computer operation] of all students, job training and on-the-job experience will do little for hard-to-employ youths."

Senator Quayle responded that improvement in academic skills was "the responsibility of the education system."

Vocational-education programs and job-training programs share identical goals, he said, and both could be effective in helping young people.

Participants at the aei policy meetings generally agreed that schools need to make young people more familiar with new technologies and to provide lifelong skills in computation and analysis that would enhance a worker's flexibility over a lifetime of job changes.

Schools and colleges "will have to adapt educational training to the life cycle of the human being," according to Franklin A. Lindsay, chairman of the executive committee of itek Corporation.

Even the most highly educated engineers and scientists, Mr. Lindsay argued, will not be exempt from the need for job flexibility, because rapid technological developments in the next 10 or 15 years will make their current knowledge obsolete.

"The U.S. labor force has always exhibited a high degree of occupational mobility in response to a changing economy," Mr. McLennan noted.

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