All entries for Tuesday 16 June 2009

June 16, 2009

Future imperfect: high skills and low wages?

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Europe as a whole, following the Lisbon Goals, had a plan to become a globally competitive knowledge society, as part of a high skilled, high wage economy. This view is shared by the UK government with their desire to move towards higher value-added products and services underpinned by a commitment to higher skills and workforce development. However, any consideration of whether this approach will be successful needs to be placed in a context of the strategies in which other global players, both companies and countries, are engaged. Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton have been researching in this area and through their TLRP associate project on 'Globalisation and the Skill Strategies of Multinational Companies: A Comparative Analysis', which examines the future of skills in the new global competition, including China and India. It is based on extensive interviews with leading companies from North America, Europe and Asia, along with senior policy-makers across seven countries. It challenges current policy assumptions about the role of education and skills in the global knowledge economy and their findings are very thought-provoking.....

Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder, and David Ashton argue that, in common with other developed economies, Britain has advocated the creation of a high-skilled, high-waged economy by upgrading the education and skills of its workforce. Such policy prescriptions rest on the idea of a knowledge economy where innovative ideas and technical expertise hold the key to the new global competitive challenge, with Britain well placed to become a 'magnet' economy, supplying the global economy with high skilled, high waged workers. But the recent success of China and India in moving into the production of high value-added, high-technology products has caused political leaders and their advisors to re-evaluate the global economic challenge. The OECD recently acknowledged that emerging economies including China and India were moving up the value chain to compete with Western companies for high-tech products and R&D investment, so Western economies need to focus on their ability to introduce change, innovation and productivity growth. The challenge is to outsmart other national economies - whether established or emerging - in the 'knowledge wars' of the future.

Their findings challenge the policy mantra of a high-skills, high-wage economy. While the skills of the workforce remain important, they are not a source of decisive competitive advantage. Many countries, including China and India, are adopting the same tactics as the UK. It is how the capabilities of the workforce are combined in innovative and productive ways that holds the key. High-skilled workers in high-cost countries will have to contend with the price advantage of university graduates in developing economies. The main threat to high rewards for large numbers of highly skilled workers in the West, however, will not come principally because they are being outsmarted by graduates in China and India, but because companies are discovering new ways of doing the same things in more cost-effective ways: through the spread of 'Digital Taylorism' to knowledge work. One consequence could be that in the early decades of the twenty-first century the rise of the high-skill, low-wage workforce may become a feature of the developed as well as the developing economies. The rewards associated with graduate careers could become very unevenly distributed.

Digital Taylorism does not eliminate the importance of employee motivation nor the need for good 'soft' skills such as self-management and in customer-facing activities. The standardisation required to achieve mass customisation still needs customers to feel that they are receiving a personalised service. This demand may contribute to a continuing demand for university graduates. But their occupational roles will be far removed from the archetypal graduate jobs of the past and we need to consider the prospect of a high-skilled, low-waged economy for the UK. The one-dimensional view of education as a preparation for employment is not a reflection of labour market realities, but an attempt to maintain the idea that justice, efficiency and the good life can be achieved through the job market driven by economic growth. There has never been a time when alternative visions of education, economy and society have been more important.

For a four page research briefing on this topic, see 'Are we witnessing the rise of a high skilled, low waged workforce?' In the 24 page TLRP Commentary on 'Education, globalisation and the knowledge economy'Phil Brown, Hugh Lauder and David Ashton consider the implications of the global skills race; the globalisation of high skills; competition based on quality and cost; global skill webs; where to think?; knowledge work and the rise of digital taylorism; creating a war for talent; the importance of 'skill' in corporate investment decisions; qualifications, skills and competence; and wider policy implications. 

Being a student, becoming a worker and how important is the way you look?

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Work identities possess both an individual and a social dimension, influencing how individuals and others see their work and themselves. Identity gives people a sense of who they are and a sense of who they may become. Interestingly, a student identity is often stronger than a prospective vocational identity and people often choose to become students even in a vocational area for reasons other than a strong commitment to work in that area and even where they are so committed, their intentions may change? What are the consequences of so many people seeking work outside the sectors for which they have apparently been trained?

So links between the subject a student studies and the work they wish to do is complex, social but also deeply personal - linked to a sense of identity and 'who I am.' However, employers make choices too and are they extending the range of personal characteristics which they seek to control? 

Many employers are now stressing the importance of employees' personal characteristics, such as 'looking good and sounding fine'. What are the consequences of this trend for identities at work? Some employers now specify personal characteristics in lists of 'skills' they require for certain jobs. Some employers now stress their prospective employees' personal characteristics, involving, for example, 'looking good and sounding fine'. The personnel manager of a hotel was implementing changes in working practices aimed at the reception staff, but complained: 'they just won't smile.' There are issues here around the extent to which attributes are seen as separate from the person – and as 'skills' to be developed.

In customer-facing occupations employers may emphasise personal characteristics to such an extent that they are looking for people who are "passionate, stylish, confident, tasty, clever, successful and well-travelled" (Warhurst and Nickson, 2001, p.14). How many people does this rule out, irrespective of the skills they possess, if an employer is essentially looking for someone who will project the 'right image'.

Grugulis et al. (2004) argue "there is an increasing tendency for organisations to manage the way their employees feel and look as well as the way they behave, so that work is emotional and aesthetic as well as (or instead of) productive......In the 'style' labour market of fashionable hotels and bars the appearance, deportment, accents and general stylishness of the bartender, waitress or retail assistant are part of what makes the service being offered trendy and upmarket (Nickson et al., 2001)" (p.7). Staff have to look good and sound right and recruitment and selection processes try to ensure that they do (Nickson et al., 2001). "But it is not only in this environment that grooming, dress sense, deportment, manner, tone and accent of voice and shape and size of body become vital. Workplaces as diverse as call centres, training consultants, investment banks and accountants all recruit, train and promote staff on their emotional and aesthetic 'skills'....... Managers may seek to control employees’ "language and body posture, the length of their skirts and their hairstyles, their weight and the size of their bust, hips and thighs, the make up that they wear, the way that they shave (both faces and legs), their jewellery and shoes and the colour of their hair (Hochschild, 1983; Paules, 1991; Warhurst and Nickson, 2001; Nickson et al., 2001; Thompson et al., 2001)......In emotional and aesthetic labour, employees’ feelings and appearance are turned into commodities and re-shaped to fit their employers’ notions of what is desirable (Putnam and Mumby, 1993; Thompson and McHugh, 2002). This process may be enjoyed by employees and may equip them with skills that advantage them both in and out of the workplace (Leidner, 1993; Nickson et al., 2001). But it may also lead to exhaustion, burnout (Hochschild, 1983; Kunda, 1992), an inability to accept or engage with emotions in the private sphere (Casey, 1995) and high levels of turnover (Leidner, 1993; Korczynski, 2001)" (Grugulis et al., 2004, pp7-8).

Grugulis et al. (2004) concludes "Ainley argues that "at rock bottom, the real personal and transferable 'skills' required for preferential employment are those of whiteness, maleness and traditional middle-classness" (1994, p. 80), and Nickson et al.’s (2003) study of aesthetic labour suggests that many of the particular skills in personal presentation, self-confidence, grooming, deportment and accent that Glaswegian service sector employers are seeking are liable to be linked to the parental social class, and family and educational background of the job applicants" (p. 10).

If you want to follow this up, at the moment, this chapter is available on-line from the publisher's website as it serves as an introduction to the book as a whole: see 'What's happening to skill?' follow this link.

Grugulis, I., Warhurst, C. and Keep, E. (2004) ‘What’s happening to skill? In Warhurst, C., Grugulis, I., and Keep, E. The skills that matter, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan. 

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