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New Office Economy Putting GreaterDemands on Schools, Researcher Says

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Schools need to do better at teaching "soft skills" such as responsibility and communications if students are to succeed in the changing U.S. economy, says the co-author of a study on job trends released last week.

In today's work world, those skills are as important as cognitive skills, said Anthony P. Carnevale, the vice president for public leadership for the Educational Testing Service. Mr. Carnevale wrote "Education for What? The New Office Economy" with Stephen J. Rose, a senior economist at the Princeton, N.J., nonprofit testing company.

Anthony P. Carnevale

"We still haven't figured out how to teach those [soft] skills, and we certainly haven't figured out how to assess them," Mr. Carnevale said in an interview last week. That area of instruction is "the frontier" for educators, he said.

The study by Mr. Carnevale and Mr. Rose found that factory jobs made up just 19 percent of all U.S. jobs in 1995, down from 34 percent in 1959.

The percentage of office jobs, meanwhile, rose from 31 percent to 41 percent.

As of 1995, office workers also held 65 percent of the nation's managerial and professional jobs. Those workers include middle managers, insurance agents, real estate brokers, executive secretaries, editors, lobbyists, and economists.

The shift from an industrial economy to an office economy means that many jobs now place an emphasis on problem-solving, creativity, and flexibility, Mr. Carnevale said. Communications and interpersonal skills become important because the office economy stresses customer service and relations.

Mr. Carnevale said his study also shows that schools shouldn't go overboard in preparing students for high-tech jobs.

"We don't want to turn everyone into a technician," he said. "While those are good jobs, there are only so many of them. The much greater set of opportunities are in these office jobs."

Old News?

One expert on the economy and public education questioned whether the ETS study provided any revelations.

"This report is not such new news," said Frank Levy, a professor of urban economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-wrote a book titled Teaching the New Basic Skills in 1996.

Over the past 15 years, the wages of male college graduates have been holding steady, and the wages of male high school graduates have fallen, Mr. Levy said. The obvious question, he said, has been "Where are these college graduates going?" The obvious answer has been into well-paying jobs in the service sector, he said.

Mr. Levy said that schools have a good grasp of the kind of skills students need, but that they don't seem to understand how important those skills are.

Schools "have been slow to realize how much [more] of those skills you need to earn $15 an hour than you did 15 or 20 years ago," Mr. Levy said.

For a free copy of the report, call the ETS at (609) 734-5050.

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Web Resources
  • Policy.com, a public affairs Web site, made Information Technology & the American Worker its "Issue of the Week" from Jan. 19-26, 1998.
  • The Policy.com information technology site includes an area dedicated to questions about Training a Tech Workforce, which contains a speech by Kelly H. Carnes, deputy assistant secretary for technology policy at the U.S. Department of Commerce, called "Building the 21st Century Workforce: The Challenge of Technological Change."
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