IN NO OTHER industrialized country are the transitions from school to work and from one job to another left so much to chance as in the United States. Our major trading partners employ a variety of methods to put youths who are not going on for advanced degrees onto an occupational path, mixing general education with vocational training and work experience, and to retrain workers displaced by technological or industrial change.
In the United States, by contrast, job finding is mostly a hit-or-miss proposition and, except for the substantial training done by the military, post-educational training is left almost entirely to the discretion of employers. We don't even gather statistics about worker training.
This laissez-faire approach has suited the American tradition of a wide-open society, and it worked reasonably well in past decades of dynamic growth. But the report recently issued by the National Panel on Worker Education and Training Policy -- composed of high-level industrialists, union leaders, educators and politicians -- suggests that the time may have come for a more organized approach.
Lagging productivity and sharpened import competition have increased pressure for automation. This will reduce the demand for the less skilled and increase the need for already scarce highly skilled workers. The resulting disruption will aggravate two severe problems. One is the dumping of large numbers of experienced workers onto the labor market by probably permanent cutbacks in steel, autos and other basic industries. The other is the festering problem of adults and youths in inner cities with little or no chance for stable jobs.
In discussing these needs, the panel has the good sense to refrain from the usual call for a grand national strategy backed by federal billions. Instead it points to numerous resources available to improve adult education -- including vacancies in four-year and community colleges, the local private industry councils set up under the CETA system, and improved comuterized learning techniques. It calls upon educators, business and labor leaders to cooperate in their use.
In fact, the panel's report is most interesting for showing a growing awareness among businessmen of their stake in the educational process and a growing interest among educators in producing graduates who can meet the needs of the marketplace. In many localities, partnerships of this sort have already proved their value. The test for the future will be whether they can be extended to the areas where chronic unemployment and industrial decline are most severe. The new administration, with its strong interest in improving American economic efficiency, might well supply leadership here.