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In My Opinion: A Lifetime of Learning

The Commission for a Nation of Lifelong Learners issued a wake-up call to the nation about the critical need for more effective adult education if America is going to successfully compete in the 21st century. The Commission's message is clear: lifelong learning must be a national priority, with programs to assist and encourage Americans in furthering their educations and securing their futures.

Created in 1995, this Commission differs radically from earlier panels, because it is a real working partnership, with representatives and voices from every sector- labor, business, philanthropy, government and higher education. That makes its message all the more powerful.

Each of these sectors has a role to play, whether it's helping to provide additional resources for adult learners, making learning accessible and available around workers' schedules, or offering family assistance to help make adult education possible. Technology is rapidly changing the workplace, and these changes will come at an even faster pace. Cooperation and commitment among all these sectors is key, to make certain no one gets left behind as we enter the Information Age.

I'm proud to have headed this commission, because I believe so strongly in the need to increase skills and knowledge throughout our lifetimes. I'm a lifelong learner myself - my education was interrupted by World War II, but I was able to complete my college degree in 1983 through evening studies. And believe it, I'm not through yet.

Lifelong learning can mean many things, from pursuing a college education, to developing a new job skill, or finishing high school through the GED program. But increasingly, it means developing the skills needed for the new jobs resulting from changing computer technology. Today, more and more companies are seeking to bring in employees from overseas, claiming these workers have high-tech skills that Americans lack. We can't allow American workers to be left behind. That's why developing education and training opportunities is critical.

For some time, we at CWA have known that gaining the opportunity for members to advance their skills is the key to employment and economic security.
In today's telecom and high-tech industries - marked by changing technology and fierce global competition - there is no question that continuing education is the key to the future for our members and their families.

The commission's findings, released in its first report, "A Nation Learning: Vision for the 21st Century," reinforce the direction of CWA's longtime efforts to provide these opportunities.
For example, the commission found that more than 75 percent of current workers will need significant retraining, in order to meet the requirements of the jobs of the future and to protect their own economic futures.

At CWA, we're already ahead of the curve with the training and education programs we've negotiated with telecommunications employers and others. Vice President Gore paid special tribute to our efforts in his recent address to the commission's national conference, citing CWA's Alliance for Employee Growth and Development with AT&T and Lucent and the skill training and education initiatives we've negotiated with Bell Atlantic (NYNEX) and U S West as examples of the kind of successful efforts that should take hold across the country.

The commission also found that 80 percent of adult Americans believe they need more education to be able to compete in the global economy of today and tomorrow. But those who would benefit most from such learning - and who will suffer most if they don't pursue advanced learning - aren't able to fully participate in such programs. Just 5 percent of adults with less than a high school level education now participate in some form of adult learning, as do just 15 percent of high school graduates.

This isn't by choice. Inflexible academic calendars and scheduling, coupled with job demands, an uncooperative employer and family responsibilities make continuing one's education a very difficult assignment. The challenge for our nation is to work together to remove the barriers to adult education and help working Americans by providing the time and resources to learn new skills and new information.

All of us must take advantage of new technologies - courses taught over the Internet, for example - that enable adults to learn outside the traditional classroom setting. Other options include expanding our network of distance learning facilities and offering educational credits for workplace learning and experience.

CWA has built a strong foundation of education, training and retraining programs for our members. Now we must build on our success and extend this culture of lifelong learning throughout the industry, and to family members as well.

Among our goals for next year's telecommunications bargaining is to advance this commitment to learning by developing the cutting edge education programs that will give members the skills they need, not just for a particular job, but for lifetime careers in our rapidly changing industries.

CWA has the formula that works. We know that joint, independent programs such as the CWA-U S West Pathways to the Future, the CWA-Bell Atlantic Next Step and FutureLink, and the CWA-AT&T Alliance are successful because they shape education efforts to employees' interests and needs, offering both specific job training and the resources for employees to develop their own education and career efforts.

And we have some new approaches in mind as well. We intend not only to maintain these programs, but to improve training and education efforts and expand the benefits to include workers' children. That way, all of us - and all working Americans - can be asssured of our rightful place in the Information Age.