With the economy in its worst slump since the Depression, the only good news last week was in futures--that women and minorities may in the next few years get their best shot ever at economic advancement.
The government's latest research findings indicate that 59 percent of the growth in the labor market during this decade will be generated by women and 22 percent by blacks. America's skilled and professional workers must come from these groups in greater numbers than in the past because there simply won't be enough of others in the labor pool to assure national productivity--and ultimately avoid economic collapse.
If America is to survive and thrive in the new technological era, the population and demographic experts say, it must look to a labor force that within a decade not only will be nearly two-thirds black, brown and female, but also will consist in large part of today's displaced, developing and unemployed workers.
This poses a new challenge to American industry, which already is in trouble of another sort. Its growth rate is lagging behind that of other industrialized countries like Japan and Germany and it can't get the skilled workers it needs for the technological era. To overcome this, industry will have to realize that racism and chauvinism are luxuries it cannot afford, and begin training blacks, browns and women to answer the call--not because it is right, but simply to protect profits.
This is not a new idea, as Jesse Jackson has pointed out. American corporations have helped Japanese learn enough English to do business with America. "To deny black money and black productivity has reached the point of being unfeasible," he says.
America has always acted in its self interest. During World War II, women and blacks were trained by the millions to work in the nation's factories. There was no one else then to do the jobs. When the Russians launched Sputnik in the l950s, our response was an intensive emphasis on science in the schools. Today in the military, minorities are intensively trained for the country's defense. The motivation in each case was self-interest.
An even more intensive response will be necessary to prepare for the Techno-Era, and the government is not the only one that must be ready for that giant leap into the future.
"It is extremely important for young women to look toward the future with an occupation or several occupations in mind and not just go to high school or college for a good time," says Landis Neal, director of the women's division of the Democratic National Committee.
James McGhee, research director of the National Urban League, says, "We must reiterate that education is a worthwhile thing. Parents must say, 'Okay, there is racism and discrimination, but don't let it stop you.' Education is the key. We have retrogressed rather than progressed. We have allowed ourselves to become complacent. Once you get more kids graduating high school with commensurate skills, we ought to lobby to apply political pressure for training them--not necessarily college, but technical training which can put them into scientific fields."
It's tragic that this potential for economic advancement emerges during the Reagan administration, when nothing is being done to invest in people, when the White House and Congress are retrenching on training and undercutting education.
It's ironic that when our children aren't learning to read or add, the jobs that are going begging are those of engineering aides, laser technicians and computer programmers. The overwhelming majority of children can be taught and can learn if they are motivated and if they can be assured of jobs--and hope--when that training's completed. We must hammer knowledge into their heads and prepare them, so that when industrial needs peak, they are ready to step into the jobs.
The women's movement and the various minority movements haven't focused on all this, and that's too bad. The new face of the work force has the potential to be a massive political force.
Yet there is reason to rejoice at the findings. They underscore how much we all depend on each other, how much all Americans really are in the same boat heading in the same direction, and you can't have a leak on one side and expect to stay afloat forever.