Workplace, workforce sees changes through decades

This is the second in a series of articles about 21st Century families.

Q: What are changes and challenges in work that affect today's families?

A: A report titled "Futurework: Trends and Challenges for Work in the 21st Century Executive Summary" was published by the U.S. Department of Labor at the turn of the century. Although the American economy is strong, there are some significant concerns about work. Families work harder and longer. Parents constantly are under the pressure of time. According to the Bureau of Labor, wages dropped drastically during the 1980s and the early 1990s. Recently, the value of wages regained the average for 1980, the level before they dropped.

There are three basic necessities in order for workers to achieve stability. The first is a rising, secure income during one's lifetime. A second need is a balance between work and family so workers can have time to meet the needs of their children and their aging parents, and have time available for themselves. Thirdly, workplaces should be safe and fair, safe from health hazards and from discrimination.

Changes needed in the workplace to accommodate workers include accommodating diversity. By 2050, nearly half the population will consist of minority groups. Approximately two-thirds of the increase will come from immigration. Older adults will more than double by 2050. More women and people with disabilities will be working.

A second change in the workplace is the use of the Internet and computers as the hub of the workplace. These technological trends will redefine work skills and jobs for workers.

There are some challenges facing 21st Century workers and workplaces. Globalization and technology will eliminate unskilled and lower-level jobs. Wages in high-tech industries have increased 19 percent since 1990, whereas jobs as a whole in the private sector increased 5 percent on average. The wages of high-tech workers average 78 percent higher than those of workers in non-high-tech jobs.

Other consequences of technology include the decrease of well-paid, low-skill jobs. Globalization enables businesses to relocate in countries in which they can hire low-skill workers for low pay. Therefore, even lower-end skilled jobs, not just unskilled jobs, are decreasing.

Although the gap between the top 10 percent of workers and the bottom 10 percent has stabilized, it remains substantial. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported the bottom 10 percent of workers dropped 22 percent in wages by the end of the 20th century. Older male workers experienced declines in job tenure. Better educated workers fared better than less-educated workers. Workers who want promotions need training and skill development.

The 20 occupations that pay the most require a bachelor's degree. Jobs requiring college educations are increasing twice as fast as those that don't. Less-educated workers of all races, mostly men, are falling behind in earnings. Wages for men without high school diplomas have fallen the most, and wages for high school graduate males are second.

Persons with disabilities have a low rate of graduation from college -- 10 percent. However, in 1997, the high school graduation rate for African-Americans was 86 compared, with whites at 88 percent. Asian-Americans have the highest rate of high school graduation at more than 90 percent. For Hispanics, the high school graduation rate is 62 percent. Regarding college, African-American and Hispanic students are increasing college attendance, but at a much lower rate than white students.

Jobs require cognitive skills such as problem-solving and communication skills. More than 20 percent of American adults read at or below a fifth-grade level. The American Management Association survey in 1996 revealed 19 percent of their applicants in mid-size and large businesses did not have the reading and math skills necessary for the jobs for which they were applying. By 1998, that percentage increased to 36 percent. America has a skills shortage, not a worker shortage.

The challenge for the 21st Century in job progress is to make sure workers do not become "jobsolete." Skills and technology are critical. Companies need to provide workers with the education and training to stay ahead of the challenges and changes in the workplace.

According to the Department of Labor, no worker who is full-time should be living in poverty. Two proposals are significant: raising the minimum wage and expanding the scope of the Earned Income Tax Credits. Workers who belong to unions earned close to one-third more than non-union workers in 1998. They also are more likely to have health and pension benefits.

America's workplaces in the future will include more women, people of color, older adults and people with disabilities. Tapping into new human resources will enable workplaces to maintain growth. America needs to expand diversity workers and use immigrants in order to be competitive in the world market.

Trends that are expanding work opportunities and need to continue growing are narrowing the gap between male and female workers and white and minority workers. There have been anti-discrimination and affirmative action policies put in place in many organizations, but barriers still remain. Many African-Americans and Hispanics are unemployed, even though their employment rates are the highest ever. African-American teens have an unemployment rate of 25 percent, and African-American males have twice the unemployment rate of white males.

* Next week's article will discuss changes, challenges and future trends in the workplace.

Judy Caprez is associate professor of social work at Fort Hays State University. Send your questions in care of the department of sociology and social work, Rarick Hall, FHSU.