IT CAME AS NO SURPRISE that the U.S. trade deficit was a chief topic of discussion at the recent Virginia Conference on World Trade. What was surprising, and delightfully so, was the extent to which education was mentioned in the context of that discussion.

The governor of Virginia, Gerald L. Baliles, was the first to broach the subject. In his address to the conference he said there are two ways a state government can help reduce the enormous and stubborn deficits that threaten the nation's prosperity. It can improve its transportation infrastructure by building new roads, bridges, seaports and airports, and it can do a better job educating its citizens in areas that are important to world trade. He specifically mentioned the need for better training in foreign languages, geography and foreign cultures, and added that teachers should be paid at a level commensurate with their importance to society.Another speaker, Washington-based consultant Marvin Cetron, added vocational training at the high school level to the list of U.S. educational inadequacies. By the year 2000, he said, 88 percent of the nation's work force will be employed in the service sector, much of which relies heavily on computers. What's needed in U.S. public high schools are vocational programs geared toward emerging high-tech industries, not auto repair and home economics, he said.

Statistics appear to substantiate these statements. According to a survey by the U.S. Department of Education for the 1981-82 school year, only 0.3 percent of all students in public high schools took courses in computer operation (vocational training) and 2.7 percent in computer science.

As for language training, 23 percent of all high school students took courses in a foreign language that year. But at a more advanced level, language training begins to fall off. A survey of degrees awarded at all U.S. colleges, public and private, in 1984 showed only 9,400 bachelor degrees in foreign languages out of nearly 1 million total degrees awarded. And only 107 of those degrees were for the study of Japanese, 14 less than the number awarded for Latin.

The ongoing debate over U.S. trade deficits tends to focus on currency exchange rates, domestic labor costs and restrictive trade practices abroad. Inadequacies in our public and private school systems contributing to the deficits too often get overlooked. The business community can ill afford to ignore this issue any longer.

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