Exploring Skill Ecosystems in the Australian Meat Processing Industry: Unions, Employers and Institutional Change

By Cooney, Richard; Jerrard, Marjorie et al. | The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR, December 2010 | Go to article overview

Exploring Skill Ecosystems in the Australian Meat Processing Industry: Unions, Employers and Institutional Change


Cooney, Richard, Jerrard, Marjorie, Donohue, Ross, Kimberley, Nell, The Economic and Labour Relations Review : ELRR


Introduction

The connections between vocational skill development and the labour market are complex. The institutional frameworks for skill development vary in different countries, states and regions and exist alongside differing labour market structures in occupations and industries. Much of the research into vocational skill development seeks to understand the impact of institutional frameworks on labour market outcomes, but some recent work seeks to go beyond the study of institutions to examine the more informal social arrangements that underpin skill development (Crouch 2005).

One recent development has involved the study of skill ecosystems in clusters of high technology firms. The focus here has been to study the conditions underpinning high skill development so that more appropriate policies for the development of high skills in new industries can be put in place. Such policies are important underpinnings of the development of new industries and provide support for the use of new technology to improve the competitiveness of firms, localities and regions (Finegold 1999).

The attractions of studying new and emerging industries as a source of renewed competitiveness are obvious, but equally the concept of a skill ecosystem should help to explain how the competitiveness of better established and more mature industries is supported or endangered, or can be promoted, through appropriate policy action. Recent work in Australia demonstrates that the concept of a skill ecosystem can indeed have a wider application, taking in mature as well as emergent industries and low technology industries as well as high technology ones. The utility of the concept is that it has a range of applications and has now been incorporated into the language of policy making and program delivery for vocational training in Australia (Hall and Lansbury 2006; Payne 2008).

This article applies the skill ecosystem concept to the meat processing industry in Australia to study the dynamics of change in skill development within the industry. The article firstly discusses the concept of a skill ecosystem and then the methodology of the study is given. The article then demonstrates how the concept of a skill ecosystem can be applied to a mature, low technology industry such as meat processing. The article outlines the way in which formal institutional change has disrupted the existing skill ecosystem in the industry and this leads into a discussion of the implications of these changes, both for the concept of a skill ecosystem and for skill development in the meat processing industry itself.

Defining Skill Ecosystems

The concept of a skill ecosystem is an emergent one, first created to characterise the mechanisms for skill development in clusters of high technology firms such as those found in Silicon Valley. The concept has drawn upon and contributed to a new body of work examining relationships between firms in regions and localities in the knowledge economy. Where other new concepts of inter-firm relationships in the new economy--concepts such as that of the local production system--examine a range of business inputs, the ecosystem notion focuses centrally upon skill development in its broadest sense. Skill ecosystems examine connections between the formal and informal organisation of learning and among learning, employability and employment. Notwithstanding its clear focus, the skill ecosystem concept shares much in common with other concepts of inter-firm relationships in the new economy. It shares the idea that institutions fulfil a structuring and enabling role rather than a defining role in skill development, the view that formal and informal networks of relationships are significant when examining skill development, and the conviction that location makes a difference to skill development, influencing interactions within networks and between networks and institutions (Belussi 1996; Cooke and Morgan 2000; Crouch et al. …

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