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Workforce airs area's future job outlook

Southeastern Massachusetts business leaders hear experts discuss recruiting, training and retention of workers.

Easton--The number of new jobless claims in the nation increased to 504,000 in the week that ended Oct. 20, the highest number since March 1991, when the nation was in the midst of a recession.

Donald K. Jonas, a research fellow at the Hudson Institute, used that statistic to open his keynote speech Tuesday morning at the "Workforce 2020 Learning Academy," held at Stonehill College.

"Brian and Sal may be the most important people in the room," Jonas told employers and representatives from the region, who gathered in Alumni Hall.

He was referring to Brian Donnelly, director of CareerWorks, and Sal Pina, executive director of the Brockton Area Workforce Investment Board, who are charged with overseeing the training and re-training programs in the area for workers seeking to boost their job skills or seeking new jobs.

The Hudson Institute is a nonprofit research organization based in Indiana that specializes in employment and welfare issues.

Jonas is a contributing author of the Hudson Institute's Workforce 2020, a book that explores the challenges and opportunities facing the U.S. labor force in the coming two decades.

About 7 million people were unemployed in September, according to the U.S. Labor Department, up from about 5.5 million in September 2000.

Economists say as many as 1.5 million more jobs could be slashed over the next three fiscal quarters. More than 350,000 layoffs have been announced since Sept. 11, according to International Strategy & Investment, an economic research group based in New York.

In 1987, the Hudson Institute published "Workforce 2000," which explored the "skills gap" between what the nation's labor force was trained to do and what skills were needed in the jobs that would be opening up in the 1990s. More than 100,000 books were sold, an unusual number for a "think tank" publication, Jonas said.

Workforce 2020 is a second book that incorporates newer economic data.

Jonas said some projections in the first book were off. For example, the Internet and all the related jobs involving Web site creation and e-commerce did not exist until 1991, when the Internet started to take off.

The rapid pace of technological innovation makes any projections difficult, Jonas said.

For example, computer chip speeds are doubling every 18 months, the storage capacity of hard drive disks is doubling every 12 months, and the bandwidth, which controls the amount of data that can be transmitted at any given moment, is doubling every six months.

Jonas recalled the oft-quoted remark made by Ken Olsen, then president and chairman of Digital Equipment Corp., in 1975: "There is no reason why anyone would want a computer in there own home."

There is a warning in that quote for anyone forecasting developments in the national economy.

"We're almost always wrong when we try to project the future," said Jonas.

He noted that a 1975-model IBM mainframe computer could carry out 10 million instructions per second and cost about $10 million.

By 1995, an ordinary desktop computer, employing a Pentium microprocessor could compute nearly seven times that fast and cost about $3000.

In cost-performance terms, the capital cost of performing one million instructions had dropped from $1 million in 1975 to $45 in 1995, a decline of more than 99.99 percent in the span of 20 years.

This information technology revolution is having a tremendous impact on where the jobs are.

Jonas cited statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and Fast Co.

According to the analysis, the top five fastest growing jobs in the nation include computer engineers, computer-support specialists, systems analysts, database administrators and desktop-publishing specialists.

There were 617,000 system analysts in the country in 1998, but there will be a projected 1.2 million jobs for system analysts in 2008.

Among the top five fastest shrinking occupations are word processors, typists and computer operators, who are being replaced by better software and more integrated computer systems, which in many cases eliminate the need for individual machine operators.

The four other fastest shrinking occupations include sewing machine operators in the garment industry, farmers, bookkeepers and auditing clerks, and private household child-care workers.

The Learning Academy, which ran for more than five hours on Tuesday, is a project of the MetroSouth Chamber of Commerce, University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, Brockton Area Workforce Investment Board, U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Center for Workforce Preparation and Barcelo and Co.

During panel discussions and work shops, business leaders discussed recruiting, training and retention of workers, as well as how to use the still new Workforce Investement System created by federal legislation.

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