Contrary to widely held belief, new industrial technologies do more to create jobs and raise standards of living than they do to displace workers from obsolete jobs, a panel of the National Academy of Sciences said Wednesday.
At the same time, the 20-member panel, composed of scientists, lawyers, union officials and industrial managers, called on the federal government to expand its support of job-retraining programs for workers who are displaced by permanent layoffs and shuttered factories, regardless of the underlying causes.
"After two years of study, I'm happy to tell you that dire projections about declines in the U.S. work force due to technological change are exaggerated, at best," the panel's chairman, Richard M. Cyert, told a news conference.
"Quite to the contrary," said Cyert, the president of Carnegie-Mellon University in Pittsburgh, "throughout recent history, technological change has helped to increase the total number of people working and to raise their standards of living. We have every reason to believe this trend will continue."
The study, which was financed jointly by federal agencies, the AFL-CIO labor organization and private industry, also found "no convincing evidence" that the introduction of automation and other new technologies are polarizing American workers into those with high-paying technical jobs and those with poorly paid, unskilled jobs.
It is true, the study said, that a declining work force in the nation's manufacturing sector has forced many blue-collar workers out of relatively well-paid industrial jobs and into lower-salaried service jobs. But it said the reasons are "rooted in worldwide economic conditions and the slow, rather than rapid, adoption of new technologies by U.S. manufacturers that has left U.S. products more vulnerable to international competition."
"This is why we say technology is not the problem but the solution to unemployment," Cyert said in summarizing his panel's 225-page report, "Technology and Employment." "We don't really have a choice. Technology is really our first line of defense against foreign competition," he added.
The National Academy of Sciences, chartered by Congress in 1863, is generally regarded as the federal government's oldest and most prestigious source of independent advice on scientific matters. However, the Reagan Administration is under no obligation to adopt its recommendations, though some of its agencies helped pay for the study.
The report said that technological change in other nations, by cutting production costs, "may play a significant role in the displacement of American workers" whose employers no longer compete successfully.
While computerized manufacturing and other new technologies can be expected to create more jobs than they eliminate, the pain and loss suffered by workers who are displaced--whether by new technology or foreign imports--is nonetheless real and contributes to popular resistance to technological change, the panel said.
It urged expanding federal job-retraining programs and doubling the 26 weeks of unemployment insurance generally available under public programs. It said that there is also an urgent need to provide basic skills training for the 20% to 30% of displaced workers who are functionally illiterate.
In addition, it urged the adoption of federal regulations or tax incentives to force companies that are eliminating jobs to give workers two to three months' notice. The report said that almost one-third of the workers who lose their jobs now receive no notice at all.
While it stressed the need for schools to provide a solid foundation of math and reading skills, the academy panel said there is no reason to expect advancing technology to raise the basic level of skills needed to earn a living wage.
The reason, panel members said, is that, historically, new technologies have found wide application only when they are adapted for the people who use them, rather than when people adjust to them.