The Critical Task of Regaining the Competitive Edge

January 03, 1991|By Wayne Moore

IN 1992, European countries' economies will become one and will create a formidable economic powerhouse. When combined with Japan and other Pacific rim nations, it is clear we will soon face ever stiffer competition that, as things stand, threatens to further erode our economic strength.

Failure to get our economy in fighting shape could relegate the United States to the status of a third-rate economic power. The prospects are all too real that a widening gap between rich and poor, slow growth in productivity and decline in real wages will continue here at home along with persistence of the vast trade imbalance with our foreign rivals.

However, we can -- and must -- turn this around. An integral part of surviving in this tough economic climate is to ensure that we have an educated, skilled and productive work force.

In the 1980s, we began to focus on reforming America's elementary and secondary schools, the critical foundation on which we build an educated work force. Even though more is needed to be done in that arena, in the 1990s we must take the next step by educating and training a skilled work force through post-secondary education that will assure our competitiveness internationally.

Many people turn to traditional four-year colleges and universities. These institutions do play a vital role in our economy. However, an efficient and productive economy also requires the people to build our homes, install and repair technical equipment, program and operate our computers, assist our doctors, repair our automobiles, and maintain our offices, schools and hospitals. To a large degree, the skill of these workers will determine the nation's economic fate.

Too often we ignore the other post-secondary options that are available. While most people will not obtain a college degree, nor will most of the new jobs require one, we continue to invest the overwhelming majority of our resources on college students.

Federal, state and local governments, as well as private entities, spend $45 billion a year subsidizing college students. Yet barely billion a year is spent on post-secondary education for the non-college bound.

Such a gross and inequitable distortion sends the wrong signal to America's young people. It implies that college graduates are superior members of society and are more important than those people who have had other educational experiences and possess other skills.

The greatest employment opportunities over the next decade are expected to be in the service and technical fields. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects the largest growth will be in occupations such as computer programmers, paralegal assistants, electronics specialists, secretaries, truck drivers and health care workers.

Maryland Skills 2000 is a coalition of business and industry members, elected officials, community leaders, parents and private career-school owners, students and graduates. This broad-based state organization is concerned with the ability of our nation's post-secondary schools to prepare people for tomorrow's work force.

Maryland's 223 private career schools provide career-specific education in more than 100 professions. In fact, 47,580 students graduate annually from trade and technical schools. If we are to provide the kind of skilled workers we need to compete in the 1990s, we must nurture this major segment of the work force. To make sure they make their essential contribution to our economic future, our challenge is three-fold.

First, our youth must recognize the importance of a solid, basic education to obtain the fundamental skills they will need for rewarding careers. We should emphasize that through education they will achieve greater financial security.

Second, we must do better explaining that there is a whole spectrum of educational opportunities available -- from four-year universities to community colleges to private career schools. People should choose the type of educational experience that best meets their needs, interests and abilities. We must also ensure that all young people -- especially the poor -- have access to the institution of their choice.

And third, as a society we must reaffirm that there is dignity in all kinds of work. Any job performed with skill, professionalism and pride is deserving of respect.

This nation was built on the backs of skilled artisans, craftsmen and technicians. In this increasingly technological society, we will continue to rely on the people who are on the front lines of the American work force. Our economic future depends on it.

Wayne Moore is the Maryland Skills 2000 State Coordinator and President of the Maryland Association of Private Career Schools.

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