2000 at Warp Speed
In a new century, in uncertain times, unions will be even more of a force for good for public service workers
If you were to train a telescope onto the job picture for public employees in the next century, a couple of things would come into focus fairly quickly:
- The nation is going to have to come to grips with a graying workforce and may go begging for workers with the skills and experience to replace them when they retire.
- Technology will make the worksite increasingly mobile for many members, and new work arrangements and definitions of work itself will demand increased flexibility of both employee and employer.
- Unions will be the first line of defense for new entrants to the workplace who have seen their earning power eroded as the century draws to a close.
What’s in the crystal ball for the public workers of tomorrow? Public Employee looked at the research, talked to leaders and members, and spotted some of the trends for our workers in the new millennium. Here’s some of what we found.
Older — And wiser? The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) has predicted that baby boomers will have a profound effect on the workforce as they reach their golden years. In fact, it may be hard to find enough bodies to replace them when they retire.
And the fallout will be even more pronounced in the public sector, according to the Rockefeller Institute of Government, for one specific reason: There are more gray heads in the public than in the private sector.
The percentage of government workers age 45 or older is now 44 percent, compared to about 30 percent in the private sector. In other words, almost one of every three government workers is between the ages of 45 and 54, compared with one of five in the private workplace.
On its own, that statistic would be only mildly interesting, were it not for the fact that, because of a booming economy that’s luring young workers to the private sector, fewer workers aged 20 and over appear to be going into public sector jobs. Sam Ehrenhalt, a senior fellow at the Institute, noted that the pool of new applicants to replace those older workers when they retire is shrinking. Currently only about one in four government workers is under age 35, compared with nearly one out of every two in the private sector.
“What is clear,” Ehrenhalt’s report noted, “is that government, particularly state and local government, can be expected to be more strongly affected by retirements over the next decade, and will have proportionately larger demand for workers to replace those who leave the job market. State and local governments will face particularly urgent challenges after the turn of the millennium to recruit, train, develop and integrate competent new staff.”
And what will the workforce of the future look like? Other trends from the BLS crystal ball:
- The labor pool will be a multicultural melting pot, with more Hispanic and Asian workers in the mix. The growth of these groups will be faster than for African Americans and white non-Hispanics, primarily because of immigration.
- The numbers for working women will march steadily upward, reflecting the pattern that’s been established since the mid-1970s.
- The shift from manufacturing to service jobs will continue, with women filling the lion’s share of these jobs.
Where those service jobs are occurring doesn’t take a crystal ball or a government agency to predict. You can get a clue just by opening the “Help Wanted” section in almost any city newspaper.
Computer specialists and health care workers will continue to be the most in-demand commodity in the world of the future. (See below.) The two fields reflect two realities of late 20th century life: a technological explosion that has figuratively shrunk the world in terms of information and convenience, and an aging population that, thanks to better medical care, is living to a much riper old age than ever before.
Health care robust. Health care services will account for 3.1 million new jobs over the next six years, the largest increase of any industry. Personal and home care aides will be in demand to care for the increasing number of elderly and for persons recovering from surgery and other serious health conditions.
Many in the profession are worried about attracting and keeping enough qualified people in the field in the next century.
Sonia Moseley, executive vice president, United Nurses Associations of California, National Union of Hospital and Health Care Employees/AFSCME Local 1199, acknowledges that for her state, the crunch is already here: “We’re seeing a shortage of RNs again, primarily in the specialty areas, such as critical care and the operating rooms.” Recent statistics show that roughly one-third of California’s nurses are over age 50. By the year 2003, half will be retired, and leaders like Moseley are concerned that enrollments in nursing schools are stagnant or decreasing. “Women have a lot more options these days.”
The profession, like many others, is being shaped by technology, and by changing delivery systems. Through telemedicine, nurses and physicians at computer monitors can answer patients’ routine questions without ever seeing them face-to-face, raising questions by AFSCME and others about the new legal and jurisdictional ground this is breaking. Managed care is cycling patients through traditional hospital stays more quickly. Hospitals in the future will be for the most seriously ill patients, with other alternatives such as home care developing more rapidly, Moseley notes.
Plugged-in employees. The need for workers in the computer and data processing industry will more than double over the next seven years, making it by far the fastest growing industry in the next century. But every workplace that handles data may feel the ground shifting under workers’ feet.
Smaller, more portable computers and increasingly sophisticated software will reshape the jobs that AFSCME members hold in the next century.
The change is already evident in law enforcement. Lorraine Maine, chief dispatcher for Manalapan, N.J., and vice president of Local 1236 (Council 73), remembers when personnel would walk down to the courthouse to pick up a warrant. “Now dispatchers toggle through computer screens” to check out a complete history on a suspect, including motor vehicle records, and firearms registration, and can print out warrants on line. Some larger municipalities equip patrol cars with mobile units so that officers can do the task themselves, bypassing dispatch almost entirely.
The duties and training for dispatchers have escalated to the point where some of the distinctions between jobs have blurred, Maine believes. She’s been advised that in the future, dispatcher trainees may have to attend mandatory police academy training, just like police officers.
The technology is changing the way people are performing tasks, but there’s a lot more going on than that, believes Mike Jones, manager of Workforce Development for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association (OCSEA)/AFSCME Local 11.
Besides changing tools, employees need to be aware of new “work processes” — a rearranging of the way work is organized. In his state, for example, the Bureau of Employment Services “eliminated a lot of the paper” in signing up for unemployment. The bottom line: “Fewer people are working in the bureau and they’ve broadened a lot of the jobs.”
Flattening the organization. Those changes, Jones notes, are lifted largely from the private sector, where managers talk about “flattening” the organization. “What it basically involves is organizing employees into more self-managed structures. You eliminate the layers between employees, let them determine the needs of the customer and redesign the process to meet those needs.”
Clerical workers, rather than working autonomously on a narrow set of tasks, are often called on to collaborate on more “project type” work.
Ohio is among the states taking the lead in training employees for shifting work patterns.
“We can’t promise people job security anymore,” observes OCSEA Pres. Ron Alexander, an AFSCME International vice president. “We have to call it ‘employment security.’”
The 'fluid' workplace. A tight labor market may force employers to accommodate workers, both younger workers with small children and mature workers with aging parents, through more flexible work arrangements.
The National Report on Work and Family noted that “alternative schedule options” are continuing to grow in popularity among employers, at least those in the private sector. A survey of roughly 1,000 U.S. employers this year showed that larger numbers were offering these options, specifically flextime (79 percent); part-time work (66 percent); job sharing (40 percent); telecommuting — working one or more days from home or some other location off-site (35 percent); and compressed schedules — lengthening the work day to shorten the workweek (29 percent).
Public employers, too, have found these options attractive when they’ve been available. In Lewis County, Wash., for example, Pat Campbell and Melanie Case, members of Local 1341 (Council 2) have shared the job of recycling coordinator in the county’s solid waste management department since July 1 of last year. They split the work 50-50. When Melanie went on maternity leave this spring for the birth of her second child, Pat was available to step in without missing a beat, saving the county the costs — and the headaches — of finding a fill-in.
A number of AFSCME locals have negotiated variable work schedule options into their contracts. Locals 3083, 3365 and 3078 of Council 81, for example, provide several options for social service employees in Delaware to carry out duties.
The redesign of the rigid “9 to 5” workplace was to accommodate clients and also alleviate employee burnout, says Karen Valentine, staff representative for Council 81. “Our caseworkers were having to meet with clients at night anyway, because they’re working people themselves, and getting burned out.”
A large number of the agency’s employees were women, many with school-age children, and turnover was high. The development of fluid scheduling options was “an attempt to recruit and retain” qualified employees, says Valentine.
Downhill skid. But even with new work arrangements offered by a few enlightened employers, will working families be better off in the next century?
The State of Working America, which tracks trends in family incomes, taxes, wages, jobs and unemployment, does not paint a particularly rosy picture.
The report, prepared by the Economic Policy Institute, says that American families at the close of the century were working longer for less money than a decade earlier.
After adjusting for inflation, median income for a modern-day worker was about 3.1 percent lower than in 1989.
Wage declines have been worst among entry-level workers, the young people that the public sector needs desperately to attract. Since 1989, the report noted, real hourly wages for such positions fell 7.4 percent among men and 6.1 percent among women.
And there’s growing evidence that the pay gap between men and women, and between white and minority workers, is continuing to widen.
According to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, median weekly earnings for a full-time white male in 1997 were $631, compared with $462 for a white female, $415 for a minority male and $369 for a minority female.
Apart from wages, unions will have to focus on shoring up employee benefits, which have come under attack from penny-pinching bureaucrats.
Take health care coverage. Frequent job changes, downsizing and efforts by employers to shift the financial burden of coverage to employees is resulting in fewer working families having a “safety net” in case of illness.
According to a study by the Lewin Group for the AFL-CIO, 8 million workers and their families lost employer-based health coverage between 1989 and 1996. Some 12.5 million more could lose coverage by the year 2002.
Peter J. Benner, executive director of Minnesota Council 6 and an AFSCME International vice president, sees the health care coverage scenario playing out in his state, where the union historically had won fairly generous coverage for its members.
The union is increasingly doing “damage control” to absorb the impact of skyrocketing insurance premiums, often at the expense of expanding eligibility for coverage to more employees. “Na-tionally, as premiums keep going up, employers stop offering coverage. Employees who had to pay some of the coverage stop carrying it if their share gets to be too high, and the number of uninsured continues to get worse.”
The attempt to address national health care in the early 1990s unraveled badly, but Benner points out that every day the discussion gets put off, the problem only worsens. “The cost of providing health care is significantly higher than it was eight years ago. The number of uninsured is significantly higher than it was eight years ago, so finding a national solution is going to be that much harder.” And there are no easy answers.
“It’s going to require AFSCME as a union to rededicate itself to working on the national agenda through Congress; we’re not going to successfully do it through small, state-by-state reforms.”
‘Perma temps.’ And any forecasts on the workforce of the future must mention the growing segment of workers who enjoy no benefits at all: those hired as temporaries, contract workers or independent contractors.
According to the BLS, more than 12 million people reportedly work in these “non-standard” arrangements. Employers like them because it allows for greater flexibility in staffing, especially for seasonal employment, and spares the cost of a full-timer. But employees complain it often relegates them to second-class status, and that the system is often abused as so-called “temporary” positions drag on for months or years.
Some AFSCME councils and locals have tried to take action on these “perma temps,” as they’re called. This summer, for example, AFSCME Council 40 asked the city of Madison, Wis., to extend basic benefits to seasonal and hourly employees.
The council chastised the city for espousing progressive values while at the same time maintaining a “permanent underclass of workers.”
Towards a new 'New Deal'? At least one expert has suggested that, in the new century, it might be wise to revisit and update some of the laws passed since the New Deal to reflect the workplace of the present — and future.
Thomas Kochan, co-director of the Institute for Work and Employment Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and president of the Industrial Relations Research Association, says that laws such as the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) and Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) “were absolutely essential for the labor force and the economy as we found them in the 30s.”
A high proportion of workers today are not covered by the NLRA because they are viewed as supervisors, Kochan notes. And “the change in the organization of work is causing us to rethink the NLRA, to bring its basic mission forward to the 21st century.”
Similarly, the FLSA has “a lot of rules that don’t fit people who are in part-time work who are now called independent consultants or contractors.”
Kochan, one of the labor scholars who contributed to the list of labor’s greatest accomplishments of the century — commissioned by AFSCME (see Labor's Top 10 Accomplishments) — isn’t suggesting the old laws be thrown out wholesale. “We shouldn’t walk away from [their] principles, but update their terms to fit the workforce and economy that we find today.”
What’s clear in crystal-ball predictions about the new century is that, more than ever, workers will need to stand together to keep focused on an employment picture that’s changing with pentium speed.
Those who would suggest that unions had somehow “outlived their usefulness” in the 20th century need only look at the predictions to know that, in the new century, they’ll be even more necessary than before.
By Chris Dodd
A small concentration of occupations will account for half of all job growth between now and 2005. Some of the fastest-growing occupations projected by approximate rate of growth:
Personal and home care aides 120%
Health aides 105%
Systems analysts 98%
Computer engineers 95%
Physical therapists 90%
Electronic pagination systems workers 88%
Residential counselors 80%
Human services workers 78%
Occupational therapists 78%
Medical assistants 60%
Medical records technicians 58%
Teachers, special education 54%
Amusement and recreation attendants 50%
Corrections officers 50%
Operations research analysts 49%
Security guards 45%
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics