The New Job Force

October 18, 1990|By Garland L. Thompson

.TC TECHNICAL TRAINING is a subject many Americans consider arcane and not applicable to the things that matter in their daily routines. Some 2,500 technical trainers from all over have converged on Baltimore for a conference taking the opposite view. Consider a few statistics, and it's clear they have a point:

* Seventy-five percent of all workers will need retraining, mainly to deal with new technology, by the year 2000.

* Sixty-five percent of all jobs, whatever the industry, will require training beyond high school.

* U.S. employers, who now spend $30 billion a year on formal, work-place-based job training, are being urged to ante up another $14 billion a year over the short term. Soon into the next century, says a report by the American Society for Training and Development, the figure has to double.

It isn't just the 40 million desktop computers that have drastically changed the way so many businesses work, or the cellular phones and fax machines so many can no longer do without that are causing all the changes, either. What's happening is a sharp reordering of the personnel priorities of American business, forced by a dwindling work force and the full-court press by foreign manufacturers making deep inroads into U.S. markets.

Pressing in with quality products, hard-to-beat prices and features U.S. manufacturers wish they had thought of, foreign sellers of cars, electronic equipment, consumer goods of all kinds, steel, building materials, ships, heavy equipment, even airplanes, have run many American firms out of business and scared others into major shifts in posture. Success in managing technological development led the way to those inroads, and if U.S. companies are to keep up, that success has to be bettered.

What that means for the average American, as for the company where he or she works, is a new focus on technical expertise. ''In the end,'' according to labor analysts Anthony P. Carnevale and Eric R. Schulz, ''competitive advantage is not in the technology but in the people who invent and use it.''

The fourth annual National Conference on Technical and Skills Training, which opened yesterday at the Hyatt Regency hotel and continues until tomorrow, has filled the Convention Center with people seeking to help American business get a better handle on developing that competitive advantage. It's nuts and bolts, not policy and bombast, but the discussions are no less critical to the future of the economy.

The training and developers society, which just completed a landmark study of the nation's work place training establishment, organized the conference for people who conduct, evaluate or manage technical or skills training. It features 128 sessions on the design, delivery and management of technical training, training for customer support and continuing education for scientists and engineers.

The new thrust, a companion to the emphasis on quality products, is ''Building a Quality Workforce to Compete in the 90s.'' It's no secret that as the U.S. work force ages and new technology drives rapid changes in the organization and uses of labor, the younger corps of job-seekers brings less and less of the skills employers need.

The training developers say the answer is ''upskilling'' the workers available. The bulk of the people who will be working in the year 2000 are already on the job, and the places where they work are being forced by their competitors to install the new technology. That translates into a need to find more effective ways to teach technical skills.

Training society staffers note that U.S. businesses have begun to use the specifications for the federal Baldridge Award for manufacturing excellence as a template for structuring their factories. Maybe a companion award for quality in training organizations could similarly motivate employers.

It's not enough anymore to put heavy emphasis on ''productivity,'' Dr. Carnevale told business leaders, educators and state aides at a breakfast hosted by Maryland Gov. William Donald Schaefer. Lean and mean won't cut it.

The new competition requires major investments in worker training, for flexibility, convenience, customer service and rapid response to innovation. The $30-billion training budget, at 1.4 percent of the U.S. corporate payroll, has room to grow. Boosting it to $88 billion brings it to 4 percent, but it should be noted that in other countries training expenditures are 6 percent to 8 percent. For U.S. employers large and small, the market gives the same answer: do it or else.

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