Workers Of The World, Get Online

WHEN GEORGE YANO OPENED his garage in the Cleveland suburbs 47 years ago, the shelves were lined with Mitchell's manuals, the multivolume bible for mechanics. Back then, all Yano needed was the right book and a good ear to make any car run smoothly. Today the manuals are gone, replaced by a Pentium-based computer and $1,800 worth of CD-ROMs. The fix-it-by-sound method has disappeared, too; today's ears are controlled by noiseless computer chips. To keep up with the changes, Yano's son Andy, 45, spends two nights a week in continuing-education courses. It's a different world than when his father, now 74, looked under his first hood. "They used to call us grease monkeys," Andy says, pausing as he pulls a schematic drawing off the Internet as his father looks on. "If anybody told me I would have a computer in the garage, I would have told them they were crazy.

Workers of the world, get out your crystal balls. Just as the last decades have brought immense changes to the workplace--the influx of women, the advent of computers, the decline of organized labor, the rise of the service sector--the decades ahead will bring changes just as dramatic. Trying to make refined predictions of what work will look like decades from now is an exercise in folly, economists say, since the biggest changes will probably come from technological innovations we can only dream about. "To try to prediet technology, you really go out on a limb," says David Bills, author of "The New Modem Times," a book on the past and future of work. But what lies ahead is not completely unpredictable. Demographers can tell us much about what the work force will look like 10 or 15 years out. Charting other changes is a matter of extrapolating from existing trends while hoping not to be embarrassed.

On the second floor of a Washington, D.C., office building, a group of 45 economists is hard at work on the government's sketch of tomorrow's workplace. Every other December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes its employment projections. The paperback guide, a standard accessory in high-school guidance offices, predicts which occupations will grow and shrink over the next decade. The hot growth areas: health care and computer-related work. Things look less rosy for bookkeepers, typists, copy-machine operators--and anyone whose job can be vaporized by automation. Other changes are obvious. With longer life spans and the cash-strapped Social Security fund, working into old age will become more common. The workplace, like the country, will be home to many more immigrants. And if you work in a factory today, you--or your children--are more likely to work in an office tomorrow.

That last change may be the most profound. In the future, says Robert Reich, the former Labor secretary who's arguably the nation's foremost contemplator of the future of work, we won't be able to classify workers under the blue-collar/white-collar division of yore. We also won't see so many Americans with only a highschool education earning comfortable middle-class wages. In Reich's view, the upper crust of today's white-collar workers will be classified as something that he calls "symbolic analysts." That rubric will include jobs--like lawyers, doctors, investment bankers and some teachers--that usually require graduate degrees. These will be well-paid positions involving some of the most "intensive knowledge work in the New Economy," he says. At the bottom of the ladder will be the so-called personal-service workers, the remaining low-skill, low-pay jobs that haven't moved overseas or been replaced by a computer. Think of the fast-food worker as the epitome of this job segment.

If the lives of the folks at the top and bottom of the ladder don't sound much different from what they lead today, that's because the greatest changes face workers in the middle, whom Reich calls, mercifully, "the new middle class." The rise of a middle class in America was largely a blue-collar phenomenon, and despite overseas competition, there are still millions of workers earning more than $85,000 a year on an assembly line. Those jobs will dwindle in years to come. "Jobs,; bending metal or doing the machining in a factory will become fewer and fewer," Reich says. Tomorrow's middle class will be made up largely of "technicians," he says, whose jobs will usually require training on top of a high-school diploma. The will be the plumbers of the computer age. The technician class will include everyone from inventory managers to paralegals to high-tech auto mechanics like Andy Yano. "Almost all 'technician' jobs involve computers," Reich says. "You'll have to have more education than the old middle class."

Ed Lotterman, a regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank in Minneapolis, already sees the changes. At local foundries, print shops and cabinetmaking plants, he sees many jobs that require more than the on-the-job training that sufficed in years past, but less than a college degree. Community colleges will train many of these workers, some of whom may receive proposed federal grants for two years of higher ed. And there may be a boom in privately run training schools.

Even the knowledge workers.--those highly educated, high-earning professionals who should thrive in the new economy-- face some big changes. In the wake of the early-1990s downsizing, it seemed as though nearly every laid-off executive had to call himself a consultant lest he admit to being permanently unemployed. But freelance talent-for-hire will become more the norm than the exception, experts say. A research project by the Human Resource Institute found that just 61 percent of the large companies it surveyed expected more than three quarters of its work force to consist of full-time, regular employees a decade from now, down from 84 percent today. While that may sound scary, Wharton professor Mike Useem says the midcareer executives he works with are already becoming comfortable with the notion of bouncing between employers and assignments rather than climbing the ladder at a single employer. Of course, they have no choice.

ACCORDING TO WATTS WACKER, A FUTURIST with SRI International, the talent-for-hire trend of the next century is a return to the guild system of the Middle Ages, in which tradesmen traveled from town to town practicing their craft for a variety of clients. Many knowledge workers will telecommute to their various offices.

Even without telecommuting, if you believe one school of thought, we won't be seeing our colleagues much in tomorrow's workplace. So say folks like Jeremy Rifkin, author of the best: seller "The End 0f Work," a discussion of how technology take the place of many mass laborers. While it sounds like a chilling scenario with lots of painful unemployment, Rifkin argues it will free us up for more cultural activities and nonprofit work. "There's no reason we shouldn't move to a 30-hour workweek now and a 25-hour workweek 10 years from now, with higher pay and benefits," Rifkin says. Economists scoff at that notion--if anything, they say, today's low unemployment rate and wage pressure show we face a shortage, not a surplus, of skilled labor. But Rifkin has sold more than 100,000 books and keeps a full speaking schedule, suggesting that there will always be ample work for futurologists.

Not everything will change. Michael Tavoletti has learned that lesson well. It's no secret that farming has been a dying occupation for a century, but Tavoletti won't give up his 500 acres in central Ohio without a fight. Many of the rhythms of his job haven't changed in years: he still feeds his 100-plus head of cattle each morning and tends to fields of corn, hay and wheat each afternoon. But when it comes time to breed his cattle, Tavoletti now uses a computer to analyze what the potential of the offspring might be if he breeds, say, Cow 17 with Bull 8. Someday, he expects, the computers will help optimize his planting, fertilizing and harvesting. "[I'm just] a guy who knows that technology is the key to keeping the farm in the family." he says. He's also a walking reminder that no matter what forecasters say, someone has to milk the cows.