Reich says future of work rests on today's choices


It seems as though Robert B. Reich spent much of his adult life preparing to become the secretary of labor.

A Rhodes scholar and graduate of Yale Law School -- just like his boss, President Clinton -- Mr. Reich spent 12 years as a lecturer at Harvard University, researching, teaching and writing about the future of American business and workers.

Some of his works, including "The Next American Frontier" and "The Work of Nations," reached the best-seller lists and proved to be some of the most popular and influential recent books on the American economy.

Critics charge that Mr. Reich plays fast and loose with facts to make his political points, and may be focusing so much on his speaking agenda that he is letting his administration of the U.S. Department of Labor slip.

But there is little dispute that Mr. Reich has proven himself to be a thoughtful and outspoken campaigner for working Americans.

On this Labor Day, Secretary Reich says there are signs of both hope and danger for the future of work in the United States. While a record 116 million-plus Americans are working, average workers are finding it tougher to make ends meet: Real wages are slowly eroding, and layoffs have undermined any sense of job security.

Q: What do you think the job market of the future will look like?

A: It depends on what day you ask me. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I'm a little nervous. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, I'm optimistic.

Q: What do you think today?

A: Well, a lot of it depends on the choices we make. I'm not an economic determinist. I don't think these things are laws of nature. We have some control over what kind of society we have.

Q: What's your optimistic vision?

A: The optimistic vision is that we'll have an economy in which far more people are in technician-type jobs such as factory technician, spreadsheet operators, sales technician . . . people who have enough competency with and understanding of information technologies so that they can continuously learn on the job.

Learning will be much more widely available, and people will continuously upgrade their skills. All of these technician jobs will create a new middle class, which will, in turn, create a buoyant economy, and customers for these technical services.

We will become more of a service economy, but that's not necessarily bad. A lot of services are information-based services. And there is no logical or finite number of such jobs out there. There is no finite limit to the ingenuity of the human mind.

There will be very few careers. Most people will not have a clear career path. They will move from one set of problem-solving challenges to another, working in teams which will change over time, sometimes in the same organization, sometimes between organizations.

Work schedules will be more flexible. Many people will be working at home. They will have an opportunity to tailor their work schedules to their lives.

Q: That sounds good. What's your pessimistic vision?

A: On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, I worry that technology will be used to replace jobs.

Many people will see wages and benefits continue to decline. Companies will gain competitive advantages by reducing the number of workers and salaries. Work will be farmed out to subcontractors who will do it more cheaply, anywhere around the world.

The people at the top, with a lot of degrees and connections, will do better and better. But most American workers will continue their downward slide.

More people will have two or three jobs. Balancing work and family will become more difficult. We will see a continuation of the trends that started in 1979: the downward trend in median wages, the widening gap between the rich and the rest of us.

Q: So which do you think is most likely?

A: Which of those scenarios comes about depends on the choices we make. One is a high road with higher wages. The other is a low road to higher profits through slashing payrolls.

Q: How do we choose the high road?

A: One way we get on the high road is to make sure that every American has a fair chance to become well-educated. We need direct student loans and school-to-work apprenticeships. We need opportunities to get skills on the job and between jobs.

We need family tax breaks for education and training. We need more bargaining power on the part of blue and pink collar. We need a reinvigorated labor movement that seeks improved productivity as well as profit sharing.

Q: You're the secretary of labor. What are you doing to get us on the high road?

A: A lot of things. . . . We've been working on school-to-work apprenticeships, one-stop career centers, job training. We've proposed a raise in the minimum wage. . . . We have a lot of initiatives under way, but they are all in danger of being cut.

Q: But the core of the problem you're talking about -- companies cutting staff and wages to improve profitability -- is a result of the incentives managers face. Maybe the only way you could address that is to change the rules of the game.

A: There are a lot of ways you can address that. Institutional investors are just beginning to take longer-term views, just beginning to look at employment practices, for example.

We've been working with pension funds and institutional investors to get them to do that. Calpers [California Pension System] has announced publicly that this is one of the criteria by which it will evaluate the performance of its portfolio. This is a trend.

Q: Is that all? Are you doing anything else?

A: We are thinking of a number of things, but I cannot reveal what they are. Perhaps in another couple months.

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