Seventy-five percent of the current workforce will need significant retraining to compete in the new global economy and to improve or even maintain their present quality of life. Yet America is falling short on its commitment to make adult learning opportunities available. Thus concludes the Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners in a report released from Washington, D.C. as 800 representatives of labor, business, higher education and philanthropy gathered Nov. 16-19 for a national conference on adult learning.
"American workers have felt firsthand the painful consequences of economic restructuring and the erosion of long-term, secure employment," said CWA President Morton Bahr, chairman of the commission. "Many are concerned by the growing gap between those who have advantages of high skills and education and those who do not. The nation must recognize lifelong learning as a national priority."
The Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners was established under a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in October 1995, to recognize the growing importance of adult learners in the nation's higher education system - they now comprise 55 percent of college enrollments - and to suggest ways to be more responsive to needs of adult learners nationwide.
President Clinton cited the importance of lifelong learning in his State of the Union address this past January.
Then, in February, Vice President Gore met with Bahr and said he would establish a committee representing Labor and other government departments to act as a liaison to the commission. In a major address to the conference, Gore made that commitment public and announced a range of initiatives by the Clinton administration to expand on the commission's work.
Conference participants also heard Deputy Secretary of Labor Kathryn "Kitty" Higgins, who announced a $138,000 training grant to CWA, and former Texas Gov. Ann Richards, a CWA member and staunch advocate for responsible welfare reform.
Harris Wofford, chief executive officer of the Corporation for National Service, which sponsors Americorps and other initiatives that combine education benefits with national and community service, gave the keynote address.
Preparing for the conference, the commission conducted hearings over a two-year period, listening to the views of 80 people representing a broad spectrum of ideas and experience and, in a separate forum, 11 nationally recognized college presidents.
They examined the commission's explorations of U.S. demographics, the role of technology in lifelong learning, the imperatives of a global economy, and the role of lifelong learning in fostering community, citizenship and social responsibility. In workshops, panel discussions and plenary sessions they explored ways to implement the commission's recommendations:
- Acknowledge and promote the link between universal lifelong learning and America's position in the global economy. Employers and workers need to recognize it is in both their interests for employees to further their educations, and that programs to make this possible are best achieved through collective bargaining. Corporations with strong employee development programs should make them available to all workers, all job titles.
- Ensure equity of access to lifelong learning. Government and social policies should make education available to all, regardless of age, ethnicity or disabilities, and help overcome economic or language barriers. Opportunities should be made available to recent immigrants, people striving to move from welfare to gainful employment and older citizens seeking new job skills.
- Exploit effectively new technologies for lifelong learning. Laptop computers, the Internet, cable TV and other technologies can make learning easier and much more portable. Government, companies, unions and educational and philanthropic institutions should work together to develop methods that make it possible for workers busy with families to take college-level courses.
- Advance lifelong learning by rethinking and reorganizing the delivery of education and training. For centuries, students of all ages have physically gone to school or college. Now it is possible to bring learning to them. Educational institutions need to rethink how courses are presented and talk to unions, employers and individuals to assess their learning needs. Colleges and universities need to share new methods among themselves and agree on standards of accreditation for courses taught through modern, hi-tech methods.
- Make resource commitments to lifelong learning commensurate with its national importance. Tax incentives and public and private funding must be made available for the enhancement of lifelong learning. The commission particularly recommended making permanent and extending to graduate education Section 127 of the Internal Revenue Code, the law which gives workers and employers
a tax exclusion of up to $5,250 for employer-paid tuition benefits.
Conference sponsors included CWA, the AFL-CIO, Bell Atlantic, and the Alliance for Employee Growth and Development, a cooperative venture of AT&T, CWA, IBEW and Lucent Technologies funded through the collective bargaining process, and Training Partnerships Inc., the non-profit corporation that administers Pathways to the Future, a continuing education program bargained with U S West.
Among top sponsors from the education community were at least two institutions heavily involved with training and degree programs bargained by CWA: the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and Empire State College, State University of New York.
"CWA has been a leader in developing programs to bring our members employment security through education," Bahr asserted. "The training they receive will make them not only more valuable to their current employers, but a desirable asset to any employer of highly trained technical and professional workers.
"Through collective bargaining we will seek to expand these benefits - and their rewards - and bring them to ever greater numbers."