The most valuable commodity in today's economy is not a durable metal or an expensive machine. It is people -- well-trained, capable men and women who can meet the demands of our new high-tech economy. The economic era in which we find ourselves is unlike any in our history. Mass production is no longer a matter of individuals performing the same manual tasks repetitively. It is about automation, precision, and extraordinary speed, all based on the finely tuned skills of skilled employees. Computer technology and lasers are replacing the factory floor of past years. The new economy demands a new style of worker. The new worker is encouraged to be creative in the workplace, and to this end has a degree of autonomy unknown to previous generations. The new worker is continuously learning in order stay abreast of the changes in technology and production that are needed for America to remain competitive in the global economy. And the new worker is offered substantial incentives to work more productively, thereby enabling employees of average means to enjoy an increasing standard of living and build real wealth for their futures. Or, put another way, the new worker is empowered, well trained, and well-compensated. This is the first of three columns describing how these issues affect America's employees. We begin with empowerment. The days when workers were regarded as little more than warm bodies whose purpose was to perform mind-deadening jobs are long gone. Today's employees are being given unprecedented opportunities to share in the way their plants and factories are run, from the design screens of their computers to the physical manufacture of goods. Consider the words of Samantha Williams, a production stamper at Wilson Sporting Goods Co.: "When I first found out what the words 'you make a difference' really meant, I started to feel different about my job. Knowing that I have a say made me like my job more. I don't feel like I am doing it just for the money anymore. To me, empowerment means trust, and I like working for a company that trusts me." William's comment typifies the experience of many employees whose jobs have been transformed by a new sense of cooperation and responsibility. For example, at the Verilink Corp., a San Jose-based manufacturer of telecommunications equipment, every production worker has been cross-trained and is able to do everyone else's job. This eliminates the need for any middle managers. All of Verilink's production line workers are accountable for what each produces. And because workers review one another's work, there are virtually no production errors or any need for a supervisor to review final production. Simply put, Verilink's line employees and management team relate to one another on the basis of trust. And this trust is based on a system of excellent training and top-quality performance. The Verilink experience is not unique. Herman Miller Inc. (HMI), a major furniture manufacturer, introduced its new Geneva furniture line several years ago in only nine months when, previously, three years had been the norm. Dennis Foley, an HMI employee who played a key role in the Geneva project, put the reason for this remarkable reduction of cycle time succinctly: "The whole process was more direct. Things weren't in the way anymore." Things like unneeded layers of bureaucracy, intrusive supervision, and ignoring the wisdom of the people who actually make the product need to get out of the way in more companies. As employees are given more responsibility and opportunity for input in the design and manufacturing process, they become more content in their jobs, and thereby more productive. In the January 1998 edition of The Harvard Business Review, an executive of the Sears Company noted that a five percent improvement in employee satisfaction correlated to a one-half of one percent increase in revenue. Employee empowerment pays. It produces greater employee loyalty, higher productivity, increased profits, and better products. And it is a central component of the new employee model. Jerry J. Jasinowski is president of the National Association of Manufacturers. This is the first of a three-part series. His second column, on training, will appear Aug. 28.