What labor needs is investment in people


Another Labor Day has given us speeches, laments (cheers?) for the continued decline of unions and the incineration of 16.3 million pounds of meat in the summer's last great grilling frenzy. What it hasn't brought us is much serious discussion of the ways we work in a fast-changing economy that punishes laggards, whether they be people, communities or entire nations.

"Back to School Day" might be a more fitting label for what the first Monday in September represents to most of us. It's also a most accurate description of work force needs, for folks who'd like to retain a Labor Day theme.

The people component of a successful economy will become increasingly clear in the years ahead, probably in ways more painful than pleasing.

For starters, the "baby bust" will reduce the future supply of workers. This demographic reality is occurring just as the accelerating pace of technologically driven change puts a premium on labor-saving and flexible work patterns by educated, trained and stable employees.

The problem, of course, is that even our current work force is not so well educated, trained or stable. Yet women and minorities will constitute 80 percent to 90 percent of the new entrants into future work forces in many local labor markets. Even if they had the increasingly sophisticated computer and science skills employers need, this new pool of employees will also be bringing with them unprecedented family-care and cultural-adjustment needs.

Today's challenges become tomorrow's crises. But even in business and economic circles, discussion about labor issues take a back seat to all-consuming debates over whether we should return to a capital-gains tax, protect owls in the Northwest or rewrite the nation's banking laws because some well-heeled Arabs managed to gain control of a Washington bank -- one of our 12,000-plus banking companies -- without telling anyone.

In a new book from the Johns Hopkins University Press that may never be read by more than 12,000 people, the folly of our failure to invest in people is skillfully portrayed in a baker's dozen of chapters by national experts in workplace issues.

"Human Capital and America's Future" is especially relevant to the Baltimore region. Local experts edited the book and contributed some of its chapters. Further, its major messages are particularly persuasive when applied to an urban area grappling with growing social problems even as it tries to prepare for a high-tech, high-knowledge economy.

The book was edited by David W. Hornbeck and Lester M. Salamon. Mr. Hornbeck is a nationally acclaimed education expert and a former Maryland school superintendent who was favored by nearly everyone except the city school board to become Baltimore's new schools' chief.

Mr. Salamon heads Hopkins' Institute for Policy Studies and, via this role and his involvement in a major study of Maryland's economy, understands the increasingly critical interactions of business and social-policy issues. Marion W. Pines, the city's pre-eminent job training and manpower development official during the 1970s and 1980s, has also co-authored a chapter.

The intuitive logic of investing in people has often not lent itself to bottom-line payoffs, but the authors argue convincingly that our social problems and competitive challenges make the return on investments in human capital attractive now in financial as well as moral terms.

Unfortunately, support has declined for the full range of human capital investments -- prenatal care and preschool support as well as improved child-care, education and training programs. And with local, state and federal wallets nearly glued shut these days, coming up with additional funding will be hard.

The costs of not acting are, of course, unbelievably high: decreased competitiveness, less productive citizens, reduced national income and wealth, more pressure on governments, more drugs, more violence, more innocent children with tragically shortened or wasted lives.

These are the cautionary lessons of this book and the real Labor Day stories of our times.

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