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BIG LABOR DAY CHALLENGES FOR WORKERS AND SCHOOLS

A few years ago the U.S. Department of Labor gave American workers some good advice that is always appropriate on Labor Day and has become even more pertinent as the economy has soured.

The advice: "Be prepared for rapid changes in jobs caused by technological advances or economic forces such as foreign competition. It will not be unusual in the future for workers to switch jobs or careers four or five times in their lives."With the advent of an unusually persistent recession and increasingly strong competition from Europe and Asia, such a challenging future has arrived much more quickly and painfully than anticipated.

If the challenge is to be met and mastered, it will require extra efforts not just from workers and companies but from schools and government, too.

For individual workers, the challenge is to keep improving their skills and keep acquiring new ones long after they have left school. The challenge will persist long after the present recession has been surmounted and the economy has adjusted to the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the challenge can be expected to intensify as technological progress creates new jobs demanding increasingly sophisticated technical skills.

For companies, the challenge is to invest in the development of their human resources just as eagerly and generously as they invest in new machines. Though more and more American firms perceive the wisdom of this advice, the United States still has much catching up to do.

A typical Japanese auto company, for example, provides nearly two months of training for new workers. By contrast, American manufacturers provide just over a week. It's no coincidence that Japanese firms produce cars 30 percent faster, with 35 percent fewer defects, than their American counterparts.

For schools, the challenge is to come to grips with the adult illiteracy that now afflicts some 23 million Americans and to do more to curb dropouts, a problem that in some high schools affects as many as half of the students.

For government, the challenge is to push a broad range of programs that put more emphasis on technical training without neglecting the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics. Among the legislation that would help are bills pushing:

- Work-force training consortiums bringing together technology-based industries and institutions of higher education.

- Technical apprenticeship programs that coordinate paid work opportunities with classroom education.

- Establishment of national centers of excellence for scientific and technical education at selected community colleges.

- Creation of new teacher-training programs in technology education.

America can meet these challenges just as it already has met many others since the first Labor Day 98 years ago, when workers toiled 72 hours a week for only a pittance.

But the new challenges can be mastered only if all Americans realize that national security and progress depend not just on military strength but on economic strength. The economy, in turn, can muscle up only to the extent that American labor acquires the new skills needed to work harder by working smarter and more competitively.