What's Wrong With The Way We Work


By Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker

BasicBooks -- 283pp -- $24

For some years now, a growing chorus of experts has said that global competition turns increasingly on the skills of a nation's work force. A few trend-setting companies, such as Corning Inc. and Motorola Inc., have reacted by investing heavily in training and by restructuring work to give employees more control. And much of the urgency about fixing our schools stems from the recognition that we must upgrade tomorrow's workers.

But these fledgling responses haven't come close to making the U.S. competitive, according to authors Ray Marshall and Marc Tucker in their book, Thinking for a Living. Most U.S. companies still rely on mass-production techniques that require most workers to have, at best, only a high school education. While America's trade rivals embrace tactics that require employees who can solve problems by themselves, the U.S. clings to managerial principles that have been turned into "liabilities rather than assets," the authors warn. "Our country is locked in a time warp, wedded to strategies long since outmoded by events."

Republicans may disagree with some of the remedies proposed here. Marshall was Labor Secretary in the Carter Administration, and Tucker heads the National Center on Education & the Economy, a Democrat-dominated think tank whose board includes Hillary Clinton and Clinton brain-truster Ira C. Magaziner. Indeed, the book provides a theoretical justification for many ideas now being advanced by Bill Clinton, such as a 1.5% payroll training tax, a national apprenticeship program, and heavy investments in training and education.

But the authors' compelling analysis is more difficult to dismiss. They argue that globalization is creating a new stage of capitalism. In the earlier phase, Frederick Winslow Taylor's theories of "scientific management" dominated. Legions of skilled managers and engineers directed line workers in the minute, repetitive tasks assigned to them. One reason the U.S. surpassed Britain as the world's leading economy was that it opened college doors to the middle class, creating a skilled bureaucracy.

Today's economy requires an extension of post-high school education to the rest of the work force, say Marshall and Tucker. Competition in a high-tech, global economy stresses quality, service, and speed. These can't be achieved simply by grinding out the most products at the lowest cost. Workers at the point of production, from factory hand to sales clerk, must think and act for themselves.

This conclusion isn't new. It lies behind many of the fads sweeping through Corporate America: total quality control, team systems, and the effort to push decision-making to lower levels. But the authors argue that the U.S. has failed to tie these threads together into a coherent high-skills strategy, as have Germany and Japan. The U.S. still invests primarily in plant, equipment, and college-educated employees. The 76% of the work force that doesn't have a college degree is largely neglected. "Our frontline workers . . . may be the least skilled among those of all the major industrial countries," the book says.

Thinking for a Living points out that most schools still use rote learning methods that leave noncollege graduates less prepared for decision-making than comparable workers overseas. We do little to recover dropouts. We have no system such as Germany's apprenticeship program for preparing nonprofessionals for work. And most companies do little or no training of current workers. Publicly and privately, Germany and Japan spend two to three times as much on training as the U.S.

Worst of all, we haven't yet shaken off Taylorism. Despite the forward-looking policies of a few highly visible companies, most U.S. managers remain mired in the mindset of mass production, ardently slashing costs instead of boosting quality and productivity. "If our employers organized work in the way that the most successful firms around the world do, there would be an instant skills crisis," say Marshall and Tucker.

The remedies they recommend go beyond what Clinton has picked up on for his Presidential campaign. They want a national employment and training board composed of business, labor, government, and education officials that would set broad labor-market policies for the country as a whole. The national board would be complemented by state and local ones that would adapt national policies to local labor-market needs. The boards would build training, apprenticeship, and employment systems around community colleges, vocational schools, and community-based organizations.

The authors' conception of what this really would mean will startle many readers. One of the book's most striking arguments is that the U.S. should rely less on monetary and fiscal policy to control the economy. Instead, we should emulate European countries that use training and unemployment programs to divert workers from such shrinking occupations as bookkeeping to growing ones such as health care. This helps to keep wages in line with growth and reduces government's need to battle inflation with high interest rates that throw people out of work. Even if unemployment stays high, the approach ensures that the jobless are for new jobs when they appear.

Thinking for a Living may sound too interventionist for many U.S. business leaders, who have little desire for Europe's collaborative institutions. But if Clinton wins in November, he may try to move the country in that direction.

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