Labor Day, a recognition of the accomplishments of our nation's work force, also signals the return to school for millions of students. Unfortunately, these two events have little in common other than their placement on the calendar. The world of work and what one learns in school are more disconnected than ever in the United States.
This September, we have little to celebrate in this country. We continue to lose ground in many international markets, our real earnings and productivity growth have declined, our students rank at the bottom on international achievement tests and we all but ignore the one million high school dropouts we "lose" every year.
Part of the problem is the American workplace, which is still based on a system of mass manufacture pioneered during the early 1900s. Under this system, complex jobs are broken into simple rote tasks that workers can repeat with machine-like efficiency; for many workers, an eighth-grade education is about all they need to do their jobs. For employers, financial success depends on keeping labor costs down; therefore, workers with high-level skills do not necessarily receive higher wages. Further, only 8 percent of America's front-line workers receive any formal on-the-job training.
The other part of the problem is our education system. It serves the needs of only 30 percent of our young people -- those who proceed to college. The other 70 percent receive the worst job preparation in the developed world, even though it is they who will make or break our economic future.
To ensure a more prosperous future for all Americans, we need to make some fundamental changes in the workplace and in the schools. By the year 2000, more than 70 percent of American jobs will not require a college education -- building a relationship between school and work is nothing short of an economic necessity.
As two former labor secretaries, we recently co-chaired the National Center on Education and the Economy's Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, a group of leaders from business, labor, education and government gathered to study the future skills needs of our nation's non-college work force.
After months of research in businesses and in schools in the United States and in six foreign countries, the commission offered some ideas for change.
First, to meet global competition, the commission believes the United States must create an education performance standard -- bench-marked to the highest in the world -- to be met by all American students at age 16, the age at which young people can legally leave school in most states. Students who meet the standard would qualify to enroll in a college-preparatory program, to begin studying for a skilled non-college occupation or even to enter the work force. However, those who did not meet the standard would be required to continue their education toward the performance standard as a condition for being allowed to work part-time before age 18.
Certain young people, for a variety of personal or societal reasons, do not do well in the present public school environment. Therefore, the commission also proposed alternative learning programs to recover nearly all of our dropouts and help them meet this new educational standard. The programs would provide counseling and job-experience services, would combine work with studies and would interact closely with the business community.
At present, there is no consensus about how to prepare students for the world of work if they are not college bound. To accomplish this goal, the commission recommended a comprehensive system of technical training and certification for non-college professions. We used the word "professions" deliberately, because these certificate programs would set higher standards and reward higher skills in a range of occupations. This would be an opportunity for business and labor to work together to create anew the skilled crafts on which America was built.
These recommendations, together with those which would provide incentives for greater investment in the training of front-line workers by all employers, have the potential to once again build the world's premier work force.
This September, as our workers celebrate Labor Day and our students return to the classroom, we ought to be conscious of the choices we are making. Only when we begin to insist on a high-skills, high-wage economy -- in our schools and in our companies -- will our workers and students have cause for celebration.
The writers served, respectively, as secretary of labor from 1985 to 1987 and as secretary of labor from 1977 to 1981.