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Some workers pay price for high-tech gains . . .

When Carolyn Parks became a phone company operator, she signed on for security. Thirteen years later, she's facing a depressing reality: starting over in a new career at midlife.

"Who's going to hire a 40-year-old black woman with no college education?" she asks. "I haven't taken a test since I left high school."

In 1985, Mrs. Parks transferred to an operator's job in suburban West Allis after her Milwaukee office closed.

Now, the West Allis office is set to shut in October, one of 71 American Telephone and Telegraph phone operator branches with as many as 10,000 workers that recently have closed or will close by 1995. Some workers transfer, but others can't; Mrs. Parks' husband has a city job and they must stay in town.

She is among tens of thousands of workers caught up in a revolution in the telecommunications industry. In the decade since AT&T's divestiture, new competitors have emerged and computerized technology has exploded, while telephone operators have become a dwindling force.

"You don't have to pay health benefits and wages to a computer," said Mrs. Parks, who helps pay college tuition for two of her three children. "But a computer doesn't have to feed the kids. You have to weigh these things.

"Now you do it, you do it fast, but then the computer can do it more efficiently."

Phone company employees are part of a vast pool of American workers whose jobs have been transformed _ or eliminated _ because of technology.

Computers, robots and other high-tech wizardry are everywhere, from auto, steel and textile assembly lines to airline reservation counters, discount store warehouses and bank offices.

These changes have made U.S. industries more efficient, productive and competitive. Consider:

Telecommunications: AT&T handled 37.5-million calls on an average workday with 44,000 operators a decade ago. Now, with more direct dialing, 800 numbers and a voice recognition system that allows a computer to understand caller commands, it handles 160-million calls with only 15,000 operators.

AT&T will reduce its operators to 12,000 by 1995, but computerization extends beyond just them.

"A manager with flying fingers at a PC (personal computer) can do in an afternoon what it took a small battalion of engineers to do in a couple of weeks," company spokesman Burke Stinson said.

Steel: It took about 10 work hours to produce a ton of steel in 1982; a decade later, it was down to less than 4{ hours, and much of that was because of computers and technology, according to the American Iron and Steel Institute.

Agricultural equipment: At the Aurora, Ill., plant of Caterpillar Tractor Co., a streamlined computer system makes it possible to build an excavator in five days, compared with 16 days just seven years ago.

Computers themselves are their own industry, and some experts note that high technology creates jobs _ for example, building and repairing robots.

But progress has a price. Some workers suffer, and rebounding can be difficult.

"Most people get on a downward escalator," said Harley Shaiken, a professor of work and technology at the University of California-Berkeley. "Technological displacement rather than being an opportunity is something most people fear for very good reason. Few of those displaced wind up with comparable paying jobs."

Though retraining is considered a solution, Shaiken said, "Retraining for what? That's the problem."

AT&T, the Communications Workers of America and the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers have established their own joint retraining program. The Alliance for Employee Growth and Development offers financial counseling, conducts job-training seminars and pays for college.

Even so, the initial transition isn't easy.

"People begin to doubt their own value as a working adult," alliance co-director Don Treinen said. "The message they're getting is they're no longer important to the future of the employer, they're discardable."

Many take new jobs paying less.

A 1992 study commissioned by the alliance found AT&T workers laid off because of computerization _ mostly telephone operators _ saw their hourly wages drop from $11.83 to $10.01.

But there are success stories, too.

After the AT&T office in Massachusetts in which Diane Hardin worked closed in 1991, she took computer courses set up by the alliance. She found a higher-paying position as a network computer engineer.

"It saved my life," she said. "It gave me a whole new career. . . . It gave me the technical ability to be marketable. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me."

More than half the operators who lost jobs last year found work in AT&T, though not necessarily in the same position, said Stinson, the company spokesman.

But as more offices close, competition for those slots will intensify, he said.

"What you want to do is see the handwriting on the wall," he said. "If your skill these days is being replaced by technology, take advantage of company programs to learn a new skill. That sounds easy. But a number of people are not interested."

Despite worker hardships, some say this is a natural evolution that shouldn't be stopped.

"It would be a great mistake for society to just declare a moratorium on advanced technology because some people get hurt," said Timothy Dunne, a University of Oklahoma economics professor.

"The prices of goods go down, the prices of services go down, productivity in the economy generally goes up," he said. "If we were to operate with the technology we had 100 years ago, it would be one hell of a lot lower standard of living."