Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Faces a Decade of Challenge

Newspaper article St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)

Labor Faces a Decade of Challenge

Article excerpt

What American businesspeople are predicting for the rest of the decade sounds at first like good news: The 1990s will be the "value decade," they say, and corporations will be making the most of "labor flexibility."

Translated, their message isn't quite so cheery: Competing successfully against rivals at home and abroad will mean delivering value - quality and low price - as never before, and that will put a relentless squeeze on millions of workers, their wages and their jobs.

As Americans worry through what is being called a jobless recovery, they are getting a strong hint of things to come, because what they are encountering is not just the tail end of a recession.

It is the leading edge of an era when economic success for corporations and countries alike will depend not just on new products and services but also on new ways to hold down cost. It will be a time for great efficiencies as well as great innovations and hiring more people will be the last thing on most managers' minds.

In the words of Noel Tichy, a management specialist at the University of Michigan, "Companies in the '90s are going to be incredibly focused on getting more output from the same or fewer resources."

Cost competition has intensified for reasons far more complicated than just cheap foreign labor. Technology and technical information travel almost unrestrained across borders and oceans these days, and the developing world is becoming increasingly sophisticated in engineering and production. Money moves more freely; markets are more open. And a proliferation of manufacturing facilities on every continent is capable of producing much more than the world is buying.

In this decade, the gradually growing weight of all that is coming to rest on the U.S. job market.

Gary Burtless of the Brookings Institution, a public policy research institute in Washington, describes the worst case simply and bleakly: "There's a non-trivial chance you're working for a firm that could go bankrupt."

Bankruptcy or not, there is a powerful likelihood that more people will find themselves unemployed, unemployable or sliding down in the wage market. Ian Wilson, a senior consultant at SRI International, a national economic consulting firm, expects job creation to be one of the most critical public concerns of the decade.

"No issue," he said, "is likely to create greater conflict between societal expectations and corporate needs."

As if to bear him out, the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics forecasts that in the 15 years from 1990 to 2005, the value of goods manufactured in the United States will climb by 41 percent. But the number of people employed to make those goods will fall by 3 percent. …

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