By Lee Egerstrom, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minn. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Apr. 21--American education faces difficult challenges in preparing a new generation of workers who can handle information and technology needs for modern business, editors of Fortune Magazine said Thursday in Minneapolis.

With modern computer technology, employees may access all the information a company may need, which is contributing to the elimination of middle management positions and hierarchal corporate structures.

At the same time, said Donald Holt, general editor of the business magazine, not everyone will know how to access and use the information.

``The gap between the haves and have-nots is getting wider,'' Holt said at a leadership forum during the day-long Junior Achievement National Business Hall of Fame conference that was held in the Twin Cities.

``Instead of computers becoming the great unifier, they are becoming the great divider,'' Holt warned.

A panel of Fortune editors, moderated by editor emeritus and broadcast commentator Marshall Loeb, weighed in on issues affecting business leadership during the conference at Orchestra Hall in Minneapolis.

Patricia Sellers, an associate editor, noted that while a limited number of American households have home computers, those households tend to account for a high proportion of American wealth, business intelligence and household purchasing power.

But Peter Petre, an assistant managing editor responsible for science and technology, offered hope that America isn't destined for a have, have-not class structure based on computer knowledge.

Children are quick learners when given access to personal computers, he noted. And computer software programs and PCs are constantly getting ``friendlier'' to use.

``I wouldn't sacrifice books and good teachers for computer equipment in the classroom,'' Petre said.

Fortune is a cosponsor of the annual National Business Hall of Fame Conference with the national Junior Achievement business training and education program for young people. 3M served as host of the conference this year; L.D. DeSimone, chairman and chief executive of 3M, also serves as chairman of the Junior Achievement board.

Most events were held at the Minneapolis Hilton Hotel and Towers. A formal dinner for Hall of Fame laureates and descendants of deceased laureates was held at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.

William McKnight, a legendary chief executive of 3M who lead the company into the ranks of America's largest and most diverse manufacturing companies, was among deceased business leaders inducted into the hall. Frank Woolworth,

Frederick Maytag and Alexander Hamilton were others; retired chief executives Raymond Noorda of Novell Inc.; Philip Caldwell of Ford Motor Co. and P. Roy Vagelos of Merck & Co. were present for their induction into the hall. END!A3?SP-FORTUNE

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