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Shifting into hi-tech

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The signs of the times are everywhere. Christmas trees bulge with gleaming electronic toys - from computers that analyze family finances and teach French or Spanish to games that go zip and bang. Parents are demanding computers for their children in elementary schools. Colleges are beginning to require that students own their own calculator or computer. High technology, in short, has invaded the age. And the message coming through loud and clear for the American people - and its leaders - is that the US badly needs a national policy to promote its rightful place in the economy of the future.

Today's recession dramatizes the urgent need. Unemployment is at 10.8 percent. This week the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development announced that it expected US joblessness to hover in the 10 percent range until the summer of 1984. At stake is not just ensuring the prosperity of the nation's existing electronics-high technology base - as found in California's Silicon Valley, in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, and along Route 128 encircling Boston - but fostering expansion of the US economy generally.

In the current national political discussion about ''reindustrialization'' and how best to salvage older, intensive worker-based US industries such as automobiles and steel it is sometimes forgotten that the United States is to a large extent already an electronic information-based society. More Americans are employed in the information-service sector of the economy than are employed in basic manufacturing. High technology states such as Massachusetts and Texas have relatively high employment levels as compared with manufacturing states such as Michigan and Illinois.

How, then, does the US get from its mix of declining manufacturing industries and pockets of high technology firms to a point where high technology firms play a dominant economic role? Some economists say that a starting point is recognizing that the jobless pool constitutes two categories of persons.

* A high 40 percent of the unemployed are under age 25. And half of that segment are teenagers having few technical skills.

* The rest of the unemployment roster tends to comprise largely skilled, proven workers in the older, troubled manufacturing industries. Yet, because of lessened demand in these older industries - as well as the downsizing of products, as in the auto industry - these industries will never again need the large labor forces of the past.


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