The New York Times In America

March 7, 2004

If You're a Waiter, the Future Is Rosy


NO sooner had the Labor Department announced that the growth in jobs remained anemic in January, a mere increase of 21,000, than the Democrats held a series of news conferences on Friday to highlight a favorite campaign tactic: attacking the corporate outsourcing of jobs overseas.

This plays on the fears of both white-collar and blue-collar voters, because now even highly skilled jobs, like those in accounting, architecture and software development, are moving abroad. A consulting firm, Forrester Research, predicts that 3.3 million white-collar jobs will be shipped to other countries by 2015.

While acknowledging that this shift is painful, many government officials, economists and business leaders say there is little reason to worry so long as workers laid off in this latest wave of globalization follow one piece of advice: upgrade education and skills to make sure that they - and the nation - keep the jobs at the top of the global economic pyramid.

"To be competitive and to maintain and improve American living standards, we have to move up the technology food chain," said Craig R. Barrett, chief executive of the Intel Corporation, the computer chip giant. Worried that young Americans are shunning careers in computer engineering, a development that could threaten the country's technological supremacy, Bill Gates, Microsoft's chairman, recently made campaign-style visits to Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other universities to urge students to embrace the field.

He could point to recent Bureau of Labor Statistics projections for 2002 to 2012 indicating a 57 percent increase in the number of jobs (up by 106,000) for network systems and data communications analysts and a 46 percent rise (up by 179,000) in positions for software engineers in applications.

But some economists point to those same federal forecasts to poke holes in the argument that the key to job creation is more sophisticated education and knowledge. Yes, the greatest increase is expected to be for registered nurses (an increase of 623,000 jobs) and college and university teachers (an increase of 603,000).

But according to forecasts issued last month by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7 of the 10 occupations with the greatest growth through 2012 will be in low-wage, service fields requiring little education: retail salesperson, customer service representative, food-service worker, cashier, janitor, waiter and nursing aide and hospital orderly. Many of these jobs pay less than $18,000 a year. Forecasting an increase of 21 million jobs from 2002 to 2012, the bureau predicted 596,000 more retail sales jobs, 454,000 more food-service jobs and 454,000 more cashier positions.

Forecasts like these raise fears that many Americans will end up disappointed after spending years and hundreds of thousands of dollars on college degrees. "The education-and-training solution, while it sounds good, is simply too facile," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal research group. He noted that the number of Americans with college degrees who are unemployed for more than six months has quadrupled in three years.

Marcus Courtney, executive director of WashTech, a group of technological workers based in Seattle, voiced dismay that many highly educated workers in his city, with a 6.6 percent unemployment rate, are having a hard time finding jobs. "Seattle has one of the nation's best-educated work forces," he said, "and the notion that the solution is more education and skills rings hollow because if that were the case, then Seattle shouldn't be faced with one of the nation's highest unemployment rates."

Mr. Bernstein said there was nothing to stop American companies from exporting not only lower-skilled work like basic software programming, but also many sophisticated positions, like those for software architects. He pointed to what has happened to radiologists, as hospitals and health-maintenance organizations transmit X-rays to India so radiologists there can examine them.

"The idea that you can have a retraining program for radiologists displaced in the global marketplace is mind-boggling," he said. "What the offshoring debate has taught is the global supply of highly skilled workers is exploding before our eyes, and we have yet to really wrap our heads around the implications of that."

More education and training might not be right for everyone, some economic experts acknowledge. "If you're a steelworker in Ohio who gets laid off, what are you going to do?" said Thomas Donohue, president of the United States Chamber of Commerce. "If you're 57, we're going to have to find you some temporary work. If you're 27, we're going to have to retrain you right now."

Some experts point out that even if the going will be tough, there is no alternative to a good education. "There will be good jobs even for higher skilled professionals who lose their jobs to outsourcing," said Robert Reich, labor secretary in the Clinton administration and a professor of economic and social policy at Brandeis University. "The pay premium for getting a college education continues to rise relative to workers without college educations, and that suggests that the demand for college-educated workers will continue to increase relative to supply."

Behind the call for more education is the notion of "build it and they will come." If Americans remain at the technological forefront, that should produce waves of new jobs just as the software revolution did in the 1990's. Constant retraining is vital, said Diana Farrell, president of the McKinsey Global Institute, a research arm of the consulting firm. "We live in an economy of not only change,'' she said, "but of ever-more rapid change, and the expectation that you can hold one job for 20 years is not a realistic expectation."

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