Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Deskilling: A New Discourse and Some New Evidence

Academic journal article The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR

Deskilling: A New Discourse and Some New Evidence

Article excerpt


This article offers a summary introduction to a larger research program which has been in progress for the last four years, to find a better way of mapping and explaining changes in the skill content of jobs (Fraser 2009). The purposes of this initial exposition are confined to explaining the rationale behind the research and the metric which has been developed to this end, and demonstrating with real data that this metric not only is capable of being operationalised for practical purposes, but has the potential to support findings of a kind which were not possible with the quantitative methods in use in earlier decades.

Most of the really credible research so far on this topic has been qualitative. Indeed, qualitative research is essential for such purposes as exposing the mechanisms of change in job content, identifying how real people experience and talk about such changes, and in particular revealing the distinctive complexities of individual workplace contexts, thus safeguarding against any premature assumption of simple or universal causal rules. Conversely, only quantitative research can persuasively demonstrate whether the phenomena identified in individual case studies apply across the workforce, and if so, in what circumstances. And though statistical research is necessarily reductionist, the helicopter view it provides by synthesising the detail from a large number of cases can also reveal patterns and effects which might not be initially apparent even in a large number of qualitative studies, owing to the very distinctiveness and complexity of individual cases which permit qualitative research to generate such rich data.

Consequently, good research requires a combination of both approaches, preferably alternating in such a way that each can inform the next stage in the other. The reason for focusing on quantitative evidence at this point is that it has always been the weaker of the two traditions in the deskilling debate. Moreover, the twenty years since the original deskilling controversy ran out of steam have brought advances both in purpose-designed surveys and in statistical series of more general application which allow more precise and relevant analyses than were feasible in that earlier period, and thus justify a reassessment of what statistical analysis can contribute to the understanding of skill trajectories at the individual, workplace, industry and national levels.

Whereas the earlier research into the changing skill content of work sought to confirm or refute the hypothesis of an alleged secular trend under capitalism (Form 1987; Attewell 1987), the present project originated in innovation research. Its ultimate purpose was and remains to assess the contribution of skill to an industry's or a nation's potential to innovate successfully. This different emphasis has two important consequences for framing the research. Firstly, it moves the discussion away from its original contestatory focus into one which keys in smoothly with many of the most important issues in mainstream economic strategy. Secondly, it shifts the core phenomenon of interest away from a 'secular' (i.e. consistent, cumulative and long-term) historical trend toward the kinds of dynamism and system effects on which modern innovation theory focuses. Central to the approach introduced in this article is a way of defining and estimating the skill content of jobs which retains some continuity with earlier deskilling literature but sheds more light on the dynamic aspects of skill change.

A third way in which this project differs from the majority of work in the quantitative tradition, especially in Australia, is that it concentrates less on the supply of skills (specifically, credentialled skills) than on how skills are used in the workplace. While by no means new, this emphasis links the project into a tradition of research which goes back to the landmark case studies conducted by the UK National Institute for Economic and Social Research in the 1980s and 90s (Maglen and Hopkins 1998), and has achieved some prominence in Australia in the last decade through the Skill Ecosystem Program (Buchanan 2006; Windsor 2006; Payne 2007), but which has remained very much a minority strand in both mainstream labour economics and vocational education and training (VET) research. …

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