In today's rapidly changing economy, the labor force is increasingly called upon to develop new skills in order to keep pace with the constant flow of technological innovation. Since government training programs are often limited to unemployed and disadvantaged workers, it is incumbent upon employers or workers themselves to take the initiative and upgrade the skill level of the moderately educated workforce.
William Lazonick and Robert Forrant of the University of Massachusetts at Lowell are investigating how workers have upgraded their skills at a plant that manufactures optical switching and transmission equipment. In 1986, when the plant was owned by a long-established telecommunications firm, its management responded to labor shortages by developing in-house training systems in collaboration with the local community college. As the dominant employer in the region at that time, the plant could expect to retain the newly trained workers. In the late 1990s, it again faced critical shortages of skilled production workers. This time, however, the workers needed to acquire greater skills, and the establishment of nearby plants fueled labor competition from young Silicon Valley firms. By analyzing the plant's personnel records and interviewing current and retired workers and managers, Lazonick and Forrant intend to investigate how the plant dealt with their labor shortages before 1986 when it set up the current training program; from 1986 to the early 1990s when it dominated the labor market; and in the competitive period of the late 1990s. Through interviews with management, Lazonick and Forrant will also analyze the way that the plant's competitors responded to the labor shortages and the role played by educational institutions in training workers. The research will provide insight into skill formation in a major "old economy" company; its transition to compete in the "new economy;" the impact of the new competitive environment on regional skill formation and employment opportunities; and the role of educational institutions in helping to ensure the supply of skilled labor.