Reviews Of Two Books on Labour Skills and Social Progress

High Skills: Globalisation, Competitiveness, and Skill Formation by Phillip Brown, Andy Green & Hugh Lauder (Oxford University Press, 2001).
Capitalism and Social Progress: The Future of Society in the Global Economy by Phillip Brown & Hugh Lauder (Palgrave/Macmillan, 2001)
NZ Journal of Adult Education April 2002.

Keywords Education; Growth & Innovation; Labour Studies

‘Knowledge-driven economies are associated with polarization and inequality rather than convergence and equality’ is the sort of challenge that our ‘Knowledge Wave’ adherents, wrapped up in rhetoric rather than analysis, would want to ignore. High Skills goes on ‘How societies tackle the problem of social exclusion and positional competition fro education, training and jobs is therefore an important pressure point for all countries’. So the writers are not rejecting the potentiality of the knowledge based economy, and its benefits – higher living standards of more and new products and better quality jobs. Rather, both books consider how we need to organise society given the knowledge-driven economy which is a response to globalisation.

High Skills is based on research project in which the occupational training systems of Germany, Singapore, Japan (and Korea), and Britain are compared. The 105 pages of description alone makes this a very worthwhile book, showing how skill acquisition can be organised in quite different ways. As is common in these sorts of comparisons, the United Kingdom system appears least successful. The problem is not at the top. The Brits produce as high quality top skilled workers as anywhere in the world. Their weakness is the lack of middle skilled workers, nicely summarised in the table at the end of this review. Of course international comparisons are difficult, given different educational structures, standards and demographic patterns. The book has two-thirds of a page giving the definitions for the original table (so those who want to use the table below need to go back to the book). But the conclusion, reproduced in smaller studies for some decades, is clear enough.

The British production of sufficient graduates, but fail to produce sufficient skilled workers to go with them, reflects an elitist vision of technology. It is imposed by the scientific equivalents of philosopher-kings on those below, who are expected to dutifully follow out instructions. In organisational theory terms, it is that of ‘scientific management’, where there is a strong division of labour and control imposed from the top, in contrast to the ‘human relations’ approach with its more group than individualistic orientation, and where each group has considerable control over its working activities. The choice between the two styles is partly one of philosophy, but it is also a matter of technological development.

I recall a frustrated unionist, whose members were called in by a harassed management because a very expensive, recently imported, piece of machinery was working well below the capacity the German manufacturer promised. The worker’s explanation was that they had never been trained in the use of the machinery, did not know how to fine tune it, and if anything went wrong had to hang around until the specialists came in. At a more mundane level, this word processed document will be transferred into the pages of this journal by a worker who is likely to be less ‘educated’ than the writer but will be bring to bear a whole set of skills which derive from a sound post-secondary school training coupled with occupational experience and a supportive work place. (The way in which the adult population has grasped the personal computer technologies is a fascinating story. There is a brilliant, and instructive, study to be done here.)

These anecdotes illustrate a general proposition: the quality and quantity of post-secondary school training – in formal, workplace, and informal institutions – plays a crucial role in the introduction and management of technology, especially given the relevance of ‘continuous improvement’ where innovation does not only come in quantum leaps, but incrementally as the users (workers rather than those higher up) adapt the technology for the work process.

High Skills is rich in ideas: this review has space only for a one other, which illustrates how different formal institutional arrangements may affect national skills acquisition. How does the skills base of the foreign owned firms (which are among the more advanced technologically) get transferred into the domestic sector when the training institutions are excessively siloed? The book argues that the British system will be much less successful at skills transfer than the German one, with its better national integration which has not only produced relatively more skilled workers, but is also better oriented towards the transfer of skills between workers in different businesses.

The book’s concern with foreign investment is not for illustrative purposes, but because the writer’s see globalisation as intimately linked to skilling strategies. This is even more explicit in Capitalism and Social Progress. The authors see the post-war era split into two roughly equal periods. First there was a ‘Golden era’ of ‘western capitalism … built on “walled” economies of massed-produced goods and services which offered a decent family wage to low-skilled workers.’ More recently border protection has been rolled back – not least because workers want the benefits of international goods and services – and that has also meant that the internal protection of worker’s jobs and living standards has become much more difficult (although some countries have been more successful than others).

The resulting globalisation is the central content of many books, and these two have chapters which will be familiar to most readers. What is distinctive is this book’s perceptions about future possibilities. The ‘Golden era’ cannot be recreated. Instead we need to harness the ‘forces of knowledge-driven capitalism’. Capitalism and Social Progress emphasises ‘collective intelligence’, which is ‘integral to the reinvention of society’, although the other book provides some of the research background to the thinking.

There is a fashion for combining two grandiose words, such as ‘Knowledge Wave’, to give the impression of a deeply significant concept, which on careful analysis proves to be as shallow as the phrase’s creator. ‘Collective intelligence’ would appear to be such a phrase, except the writers are expert. Phillip Brown is a social science research professor at Cardiff University, and Hugh Lauder is professor of education and political economy at the University of Bath. Lauder will be known to many as a long time New Zealand university teacher, a vigorous opponent of the penetration of rogernomics into the education sector, and who also wrote poetry and was the poetry editor of Landfall. (Andy Green is Professor of Education and Co-director of the Centre for Wider Benefits of Learning at the London University Institute of Education)

After setting down the professional understandings of the underlying notions of intelligence, Capitalism and Social Progress argues we must ‘reclaim “intelligence” from the grip of the eugenics movement and from its impoverished representation in the form of IQ tests. … The idea of intelligence in the Golden era is redundant in the world in which we live.’ It now has to encompass the artistic and emotional dimensions of human capability, the ability to solve problems, to think critically and systematically about the social and material worlds, to apply new skills and techniques, to empathize and to have personal skills needed to communicate and live along side one another.

The ‘collective’ comes from the author’s rejection of individualistic accounts of the human condition. ‘Private troubles felt by people require public solutions, which cannot be resolved without collaboration with family, friends, neighbour, co-workers or fellow citizens. In post-industrial societies it is the collective intelligence of families, communities, companies and society at large, which will determine the quality of life as well as competitiveness.’ These notions are used to set out in the concluding chapters a learning strategy for a high skills economy.

These books may be read as a contributions to a contribution to our understanding of what is going to have to happen to post-secondary schooling and education, or to the debate on globalisation and the prospects for the world and its workers. If one’s sole focus is the former, then High Skills is the more relevant book, if the latter go for Capitalism and Social Progress. My grump is that their different publishers chose different book sizes, so they do not sit as easily together on the physical bookshelf as they do on the intellectual one.

Highest Qualification by Percentage of Working Age Population (about 1998)

Post-secondary schooling; Level 4 Sub Degree; Level 5 Degree, etc.: Level 3 & Above:)

UK (18.0; 9.0; 10.0; 41.0)
Germany (50.6; 7.8; 11.3; 69.7)
Singapore ( 9.2; 7.2; 10.2; 26.6)
S. Korea (40.9; 4.7: 13.2: 58.8)
Japan (41.8;11.1: 13.1; 66.0)


High Skills, p.76. See original for definitions and sources. (In the original version of this article I included the New Zealand figures based on the Population Census. The definitions proved incomparable and I have deleted that entry.