Economist comes to Hopkins to push reforms in the nation's workplace

May 31, 1992|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

Arnold H. Packer, an economist who helped write "Workforce 2000," a groundbreaking 1987 study that heralded dramatic changes in the work force as the baby boom aged, is forming a Baltimore-based commission to persuade schools and employers across the nation to reform worker training.

After two years as head of a U.S. Department of Labor commission that proposed fundamental changes in education, Mr. Packer has joined the staff of the Johns Hopkins University Institute for Policy Studies as a senior fellow.

While in Baltimore, he plans to form a group of business people, union leaders and educators to lobby schools, employers and testing services to stress five "competencies": planning and allocating resources, teamwork, acquiring and interpreting information, understanding organizations and systems and applying technology.

Mr. Packer, who used demographic information to predict that the work force would become older and more racially diverse in the 1980s, said he became convinced the five competencies were the fundamental building blocks to success in the workplace after overseeing hundreds of interviews of workers across the country and discovering they all needed a few common skills.

If he succeeds, students of the future will graduate with resumes showing test and grade scores in important business skills such as budgeting and scheduling, thus de-emphasizing traditional course work such as trigonometry and geometry, he said.

He said he has started forming the advisory board for his as-yet-unnamed group, and it includes such Baltimore stalwarts as Robert C. Embry Jr. of the Abell Foundation and top executives of such companies as Motorola Inc., MCI Communications and Gannett Corp.

Though his name is not familiar, Mr. Packer has been one of the most influential behind-the-scenes participants in positions ranging from Senate committee staff economist to assistant secretary for labor in Democratic and Republican administrations for more than 20 years.

His former co-workers say he has been at the forefront of some of the most controversial and far-reaching economic policies of the past two decades. And his new attempt to implement a reform developed by but also ignored by the Bush administration again puts him at the leading edge.

Anthony Carnevale, president of the Institute for Workplace Learning at the Association for Training and Development, worked with Mr. Packer when they were staff members for the Senate Budget committee during the 1970s. He remembered that Mr. Packer was responsible for the creation of hundreds of thousands of public service jobs through the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act.

"The unemployment rate was 9 percent, and we thought we were going to have a revolution," Mr. Carnevale recalled. "Arnie grabbed every senator within reach and over everybody's rejection" got the Congress to provide funding.

"He is like a little ankle-biting dog," Mr. Carnevale said. "When he gets an idea, he is silly enough to stand up and tell people. And oftentimes he is one of the first people to have the idea."

Quick to see problems, outspoken and tenacious, Mr. Packer has contributed to some policies that even he appears now says may not have been worth the effort.

Framed on the wall of his new basement office on the Homewood campus is a letter from the late Hubert H. Humphrey thanking Mr. Packer for helping to pass the Humphrey-Hawkins Act in 1978, which declared it national policy to achieve a 4 percent unemployment rate by 1983 and zero inflation by 1988.

"That ruined my reputation among my economic colleagues," Mr. Packer said. Most conventional economists believe low unemployment rates eventually drive up inflation.

But even those who believe measures such as the Humphrey-Hawkins law are ill-advised say Mr. Packer's work on the competitiveness and training of the U.S. work force has been widely approved.

Mr. Packer "has unconventional ideas. He does not travel down the well-trodden path. . . . He tends to be quite passionate about those issues which he thinks are important," said Gary Burtless, an economist with the Brookings Institution in Washington.

"He sounded the alarm on the relative lack of preparation of the work force in the 1980s," before anyone else had done much research on the problem, Mr. Burtless said.

And events have confirmed many of Mr. Packer's dire warnings.

"I've looked at the data in a very different way, and I have reached very similar conclusions" to those of the Workforce 2000 study, Mr. Burtless said.

Now, with his new reports on proposed changes to the way students and workers are taught, Mr. Packer is "once again right at the heart" of an important reform movement, Mr. Burtless said.

"I don't see anything as important as this," he said.

Mr. Packer said he came to Hopkins because the labor secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, at which researched and developed his ideas on the five competencies, had disbanded.

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