MUCH IS BEING MADE of our arrival into the age of high- technology. In Massachusetts last week, President Reagan declared the country is "in a great transition" to high tech, furthing the notion that the nation's economic ills will be cured by our new sweetheart industry as it spawns massive numbers of new jobs requiring sophisticated mathematical and engineering training while reducing or even eliminating opportunitie for the unskilled.
Well, the evidence suggests it isn't going to work that way.
High tech is not the place where most new jobs will be found, nor will high tech require a vast upgrading of the skills of the American labor force. To the contrary, the expansion of the lowest-skill jobs in the American economy will vastly outstrip the growth of high-technology ones. And the proliferation of high-technology industries and their products is far more likely to reduce the skill requirements for jobs in the U.S. economy than to upgrade them.
Last year the Labor Department did project that in the '80s, jobs for computer programmers would grow between 74 and 148 percent while overall job growth would only be 22 percent.
But the percentages are misleading. The total number of new jobs for computer programmers is expected to be 150,000. Some 1.3 million new jobs are projected for janitors, nurses' aides and orderlies. That's nine unskilled jobs in these categories alone for every computer programmer. In fact, no high-tech job even makes the Labor Department's top 20 in terms of total numbers of jobs added to the U.S. economy.
New jobs for data-processing-machine mechanics will increase 148 percent, the fastest growing job category. But that large gain translates into an increase of fewer than 100,000 new jobs, while 800,000 new jobs are projected for fast-food workers and kitchen helpers alone.
Of course, occasional shortages of skilled workers will arise in particular occupations and industries, as they have historically. Both the economy and educational system will have to make specific adjustments to alleviate them. But that is hardly the general shortage of skilled workers projected by those who have exaggerated the effects of high-tech.
Neither will the high-tech transformation of existing jobs create demands for increasingly sophisticated work skills. Secretaries will work with word processing equipment; bookkeepers will use computerized, financial spread sheets; purchasing and inventory clerks will apply computerized record systems; mechanics will use diagnostic equipment employing mini-computers; telephone operators will rely on computerized directories.
But there is little evidence that these jobs will require workers with more sophisticated skills. To the contrary, studies suggest that the new technologies provide opportunities to further simplify and routinize work tasks and to reduce the opportunities for worker individuality and judgement.
In such diverse areas as office work, data processing, drafting, wholesale and retail trade, and computer programming, micro-computers are making it possible to utilize persons with lower skills to perform highly sophisticated functions.
Using computers does not necessarily require computer skills. For example, the new generation of office computers are specifically designed so that "no special computer skills are needed." The latest word processors can even correct typing errors automatically by the use of electronic dictionaries, so letter-perfect typing and strong spelling skills are no longer required.
As computer languages have become more "user-friendly" and sophisticated software has become available for a large variety of tasks, many computer programming positions have been eliminated or downgraded in terms of their skill requirements.
In fact, the use of sophisticated equipment often means that the worker requires less sophisticated skills. Today's Ford Escort is far more sophisticated than the Model T of 50 years ago. Yet it is far easier to drive today's vehicle. Computers are far more sopisticated today than they were 10 or 20 years ago. Yet the average programming task is considerably less demanding than it was when there was the need to reprogram plugboards and work in machine languages.
Workers will need to learn different skills rather than more demanding ones. Certainly word processing is different in some respects from typing. However the new skills needed can be acquired through on-the-job training. An expanded foundation in science, mathematics, and computer programming is hardly necessary.
e see an entirely different set of problems arising from high tech than is popularly assumed. Not only will the economy create more low-skill jobs than high, it is possible that high tech will eliminate far more jobs than it will create. For example, experts suggest that the use of computer-assisted design (CAD) software may eliminate a majority of the 300,000 drafters in the U.S.
If the future of work is being written in Silicon Valley, the danger signs are already evident. Although there are clearly some high-level executives, programmers, and engineers who are stimulated by their jobs in the Valley, most workers in these industries are clericals, assembly workers, and low-level technicians the challenges of whose labor may leave something to desired.
A recent front-page story in The San Jose Mercury estimated that a third of all workers in the Valley are involved in drugs and alcohol and that drugs are largely responsible for thefts on the job, accidents, and a decrease in productivity and quality.
It is time that we take a clearer look at the job implications of high technology, rather than blindly accepting the folk wisdom on the subject.