Herbert Grover, the Wisconsin superintendent of schools, says that when he organized a series of public meetings across his state this year on preparing students for tomorrow's jobs, "the auto dealers followed me from place to place." The reason: "They are desperate for people they can move into $35,000-a-year auto-mechanic jobs."
Former Tennessee governor Lamar Alexander, now president of the University of Tennessee, says: "The governors who will do most to assure their states' economic futures are the governors who lead the adults in their states back to school in this decade."
John Hurley, vice president of the Chase Manhattan Bank, says: "We have a work-force crisis in this country, because more than four out of ten of the workers who are on the job today are not being trained to do the work that today's economy demands."
Retiring Secretary of Labor Elizabeth Hanford Dole says: "Despite the current downturn, the '90s can be the best decade ever for American workers -- but only if they acquire the training they need for tomorrow's jobs."
Ira Magaziner, chairman of a bipartisan commission that included former Labor secretaries Bill Brock and Ray Marshall, says: "America's choice is between high skills and low wages. Gradually and silently, we are making the choice for low wages, and it will take a major effort to change that."
Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton says: "We are miserably failing the half of our high school students who will not go on to college, because we have no program to move them into jobs and no commitment to equip them with the skills they need to escape the inevitable poverty that awaits unskilled people."
Concerns like these are what brought an overflow crowd of several hundred people together last week for a day-long Progressive Policy Institute meeting on the "skills crisis," which poses probably the biggest threat and challenge to the future of the American economy and nation.
The focus of this meeting was to discuss whether the apprentice program developed in postwar Germany and hailed as the source of its remarkable economic growth can be successfully adapted to the United States.
The kind of system described by Magaziner in the newly published report of the National Center on Education and the Economy and, in broader terms, by Hurley in another study by the American Society for Training and Development, would blend academic and work experience. It envisages stiff academic-competency tests between the 10th and 12th grades for all students -- both the college-bound and those headed into the workplace. The latter group would then take a mix of on-the-job training and further classwork, leading to a formal certification of the skills needed for what Magaziner calls the "high-performance work organizations" that are rapidly replacing assembly lines as the only sources of high-paying jobs for those without college degrees.
This scheme would require companies to expand their training facilities; unions and employee organizations to alter their membership policies; high schools, junior colleges and technical schools to revise their curricula; federal, state and local governments to rethink their employment services -- and all of them to work together in unfamiliar ways.
As the conference demonstrated, none of this will be easy. The Labor Department has invested a minuscule sum in apprenticeship pilot projects in six cities, and Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) and Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.) have legislation to expand that demonstration program.
Michael Bruton, secretary-treasurer of the Chicago Federation of Labor, teed off on the Nunn-Gephardt bill and made it clear the unions want much more say about the structure of expanded apprenticeship programs.
In the corridor conversations, women and minorities remarked that even the term "apprenticeship" has bad connotations for them because of the long history of apprenticeships being used to restrict access to high-paying trades.
The people who are engaged in this discussion -- including the administration's two hands-on executives -- Assistant Secretary of Labor Robert T. Jones and Assistant Secretary of Education Christopher Cross -- readily acknowledge they know of no "silver bullet" solution to all the problems inherent in this approach.
But the Germans have shown that a conscious, focused effort to improve the academic backgrounds and the work-related skills of young people who will enter the work force in their late teens, without college degrees, can pay huge economic dividends. Stephen Hamilton of Cornell University pointed out that there are also important potential social gains from moving adolescents into a setting where they spend much of their time with adults who can be mentors and role models, rather than keeping them in school settings where their peers may actually discourage high-level academic performance.
But the bottom line, which no one seriously challenges, is that the difference between a bright future and the prospect of a steadily declining living standard for the majority of Americans rests on increasing the skills of today's and tomorrow's workers. We had best be about the task.