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January 15, 2009



Chris, your Harry Braverman links don't seem to b working.


Sorry - they're up now.

Bob B

Exactly which bits of the British economy are up for deskilling?

Surely not the construction industry (remember how valued were those skilled Polish craftsman who came here to work and then went back home) or financial services (think: the consequences of dishing out all those credit/debit cards and the 125% mortgages for all those borrowers who couldn't afford to repay)?

Anyone tried inquiring with sales staff in Tesco's about buying something on offer relating to computers - or even in PC World, for that matter?

In international comparisons of productivity, Britain comes out fairly badly relative to other G7 countries and especially in comparisons with the Netherlands:

And I was under the impression we were firmly committed to moving up the value-chain by creating "the knowledge-based economy" to make up for the trend decline in manufacturing:


All excellent proposals as far as I am concerned.

The problem is that, in my experience, nearly all workplaces are run by managers for managers. Changing to workplaces where they are humble administrators is the one change I don't think they will ever be interested in managing voluntarily.

Bob B

For more on the features of the knowledge-based economy, try this OECD brief from back in 1996:

As for manufacturing in Britain, the valued added now contributes less than 12% of total gross value added:

Btw has anyone come across a purchasing inquiry, from abroad or at home, about buying 3 tons, or whatever, of "manufactures"?

Bob B

Try: Over-education and the skills of UK graduates:

But from all the data I've seen for G7 countries, with only rare national exceptions, unemployment rates are lower and employment rates high for graduates compared with non-graduates.

"WOMEN university students now outnumber men across all subject areas, from engineering to medicine and law to physical sciences."

Sadly, it wasn't anything like that in my time at uni. We have come a long way since Daniel Defoe wrote this in 1719:

"I have often thought of it as one of the most barbarous customs in the world, considering us as a civilized and a Christian country, that we deny the advantages of learning to women. We reproach the sex every day with folly and impertinence; while I am confident, had they the advantages of education equal to us, they would be guilty of less than ourselves."

Tim Almond

"Also, it requires us to recognize that any organization that requires “exceptional leadership” is by definition dysfunctional and should therefore either be restructured or closed. Successful organizations, largely, run themselves."

Such as?


First you cannot 'stop change'. When has this ever been done?

And second you make the mistake of mixing up education and skills.

Skills are simply things individuals can sell on the market. An understanding of PHP or SQL is a skill.

But an understanding of Foucault is education not a skill.

So of course we need a skilled work force. But not necessarily a highly educated one.

Bob B

"And second you make the mistake of mixing up education and skills"

How do we distinguish the one from the other and haven't we got to the stage where many skills crucially depend on an education? Modern engineering apprenticeships have come to depend more on a theoretical content compared with those old time-serving apprenticeships.

A few years back I got into a broadly similar online argument where someone was questioning the need to include algebra and trig in school maths.

Britain is relatively successful in the highly competitive business of producing computer and video games for a multi-million international market. Such products may seem to some to verge on the frivolous but generate large revenues and - perhaps surprisingly - are challenging to programme. An understanding of algebra and trig is necessary for programming the transformations.

The Great Simpleton

"which of course requires that workers be empowered."

This assumes that workers want to be empowered. It is my experience, albeit mostly overseas, the a significant number don't want the responsibility - they just want to go to work, do a job, get paid and go home and not have to worry about anything else.


"recognize that any organization that requires “exceptional leadership” is by definition dysfunctional and should therefore either be restructured or closed. Successful organizations, largely, run themselves."

Perfect, and perfectly ignored by almost all who should know it. In my professional life as a headhunter, my clients invariably say they are seeking the 'outstanding' or the 'exceptional'; they are almost always taken aback when I tell them why that might not necessarily be the best thing to express.


An interesting thesis. The USG seems to seek "expanded university opportunity," i.e. larger enrollment, in the 4 year university system. While in the short term this lowers the supply of work force entrants, lessening unemployment rates, it will eventually produce a devalued degree. Under present economic conditions, and what seems (take a look at U.S. and Europe unfunded liabilities) to be the beginning of the end of the bloated Welfare State form of government, how does a degree in any Foucault-ian post-modern humanities degree produce a net positive return on investment? It seems likely that among the many transformation soon to be realized the prevailing educational systems - worthless secondary degrees and valueless humanities degrees - will prove unsustainable. In the U.S. we are seeing the results of a dumbing down of education, with a flood of institutions and individuals pleading for government "bailouts" to solve their problems. Unfortunately, the process of deskilling, which BTW must not be Luddite in execution, will require the contributions of a large number of creative, imaginative and convincing leaders at mid-management levels within organizations. A bankrupt educational process is going to produce these people when and how?

David Heigham

Successsful change also largely runs itself, and changes in the directions that the people in the organisation select as worthwhile almost always are worthwhile.

Recusant's point is general. At all levels those recruiting are prone to over-specifying the qualities they are looking for. At the other end of the spectrum from selecting 'leaders', I learnt that lesson from a quick look at people who typed data into punched cards (a minor skill long obsolete, thanks be). We in the private sector hired people of below average intelligence and very little schooling. In the public sector, they hired people with the equivalent of at least one GSCE. Our people worked a good deal faster, had much lower error rates, much lower sickness rates and lower staff turnover (both implying they were happier in the work). What is more, our people kept suggesting how to improver the job.

Bob B

Can any suggest reasons why Britain comes out fairly badly relative to other G7 countries in productivity and especially in comparisons with the Netherlands:

From one academic study of a few years back:

"The persistent productivity gap between the UK and the two big continental European economies can mainly be 'explained' by the fact that they have more capital invested per worker and their workers are more skilled."

Bob B

I find it challenging to believe that several news report relating to adult literacy, such as the following, have little or no relevance to issues of why so many studies report a persistent gap in producity between the UK and other advanced market economies:

"Up to 12 million working UK adults have the literacy skills expected of a primary school child, the Public Accounts Committee says. . . The report says there are up 12 million people holding down jobs with literacy skills and up to 16 million with numeracy skills at the level expected of children leaving primary school."

"A £2bn scheme to improve basic skills among adults has been called a 'depressing failure' by education inspectors."


Policy-makers should ask: how can we redesign workplaces to reduce reliance upon scarce managerial talent?
One way this could be done is through greater workplace democracy. This would reduce demand for “leaders“ with “strategic vision“ - as that guff can be done by vote

Rather than vote democracy, how about dollar democracy? My workplace would run so much smoother if I got my own little budget to spend on the things that are important. I would economize on Wipe-all rags in order to afford more earplugs, I'd pool with the other warehouse guys to get a better seat on the fork truck, we could purchase downtime for our machines instead of being forced to start up before we're ready (the extra productivity would let us pay for it).


David Heigham

Good point. I was once given some sage advice by an old school personal manager: "Some people have jobs and others have careers, and it's important to know the difference." Too many organisations work on the principle that everyone wants to be a chief: most don't.

Bob B


"The UK performs relatively well in terms of high-level skills and is beginning to catch up with its competitors in terms of intermediate-level skills. However, the UK still has a very high proportion of people with only basic-level skills, and we appear to suffer from a management quality deficit with respect to our main competitors."
HMT + DTI: Productivity and Competitiveness Indicators 2005

"Good management in a British factory is 'something done once a year before the Christmas tombola', according to a survey published today that paints a devastating picture of UK industry.

"British managers came a distant fourth in a survey of 730 manufacturers in the UK, US, France and Germany. It is further evidence that poor management practices made famous by TV's anti-hero, David Brent, are costing the UK billions of pounds in lost growth."

Any comment?

Bob B

Don't like those sources?

How about McKinsey then?

"While the UK prides itself in its position as one the world’s leading service economies, manufacturing still plays a highly significant role in the region’s economy. Over one in ten UK jobs are still provided by the manufacturing sector and the sector accounts for more than half of export revenues.

"Low standards of labour productivity remain a concern for UK manufacturers. The country lags behind many of its developed world competitors and, while productivity has improved significantly in recent years, the productivity gap between the UK and the US remains wide.

"Can the UK’s management practices help to explain its productivity issues? In overall performance, the UK sits in a second tier of companies, with a lower score than the US, Sweden Japan and Germany, but a (slightly) better one than France, Italy and Poland. As with many regions in the survey, it is a tail of low-performers that drives down the UK’s overall score."

As for financial services, in today's news:

"Britains biggest banks are 'technically insolvent', Royal Bank of Scotland said yesterday . . "


To add to Bob B's welter of links, I'd like to question the basic premise. The whole reason things are "up the value chain" are because there aren't many people doing them. As the number of people doing them increases, they become less valuable.

Ah, you say, but there's going to be increased demand. Sure, but the reality of increased demand from China, India, etc. is that it comes along with an increasing (and increasingly educated) labour pool. Not to mention that the whole point of "mass production" is to cut down design etc. (high value activities.)

I'm not against some kind of bright shiny knowledge economy future, I just don't see much evidence that it's actually real and I further don't see any real advantages for the UK that make up for the the economic geography that will push design closer to manufacturing.

Bob B

Dell Computers is closing its manfacturing operations in Ireland with the loss of 1900 jobs and moving out to a new factory at Lodz in Poland.

To my personal knowledge, software companies in Britain are outsourcing or have outsourced software development and writing code to India:

"India's global leadership in the IT services industry, centred on Bangalore, is based on its rich human resources. The country's 400,000 graduates in science and engineering each year - more than any other country in the world - give India a competitive advantage." [30 January 2007]

Compare that with this:

"Nearly one in five UK 16 and 17-year-olds are Neets - those neither in employment, education or training - a study seen by the BBC suggests. Official figures say such youths make up 7% of their age group in England. . . "

I really can't believe that the competitive challenges from the newly emerging global economies like India and China will be resolved by deskilling jobs here, ignoring the problem of the NEETs in Britain and limiting access of UK residents to university education.


Bob B- I've spent a few years working in bits of what is left of British manufacturing. Not the really hi-tech sexy stuff you see on the news, just the other stuff. The management I have met have been uniformly poor, as per your links. Never quite bad enough to shut the company or lose their jobs, never good enough to do more than stumble from one crisis to another.

To answer the posts first question, I say fuck cost-benfit analysis, social mobility is an aim for reasons of philosophy and politics. But just to humour you, you can make a case that in the long term high social mobility is a concommitant of a competitive and flexible society, in which the successful in teh Darwinian sense rise to the top, and others sink down. Of course aquisition of vast wealth and its concentration up the generations is clearly seen in the UK and USA, so something isn't working right.

Which brings us neatly back to the skills idea. Because as far as I (I make no claims to expertise, this is just what I have read) understand it, our greatest mobility was in the 50's through to 70's. During this period there was economic growth, with more and more niches created to be filled by people, a diverification of work needing doing. You don't get this by mere Taylorisation.
There were also multiple clear routes to rise up the ladder. Starting a small business was easier, there were union ranks to move up, universities, business, the civil service, etc etc. Many different ways of proving yourself capable, of moving up the social scale. Do we have so many routes now? I do not think so, and even if we do, the common obsession with sports, entertainment and film stars tends to obliterate other possibilities from peoples minds.

As for managerial talent, I submit that it is more common than generally recognised, if people realise that it can be learnt and taught. Of course training up new potential managers means more competitors for the current management...
Which comment kind of fits in with our hosts regard of empowered workers. Which is a good thing as far as I am concerned, but not what our current corporate and political masters want, therefore will have to be fought for.

Moreover, large scale deskilling would surely cause deflation or widespread poverty, as instead of having 50 jobs paying £40,000 a year, you would have to find maybe 40 jobs paying £20,000 a year and ten well paid ones. Of course if the lowest paid workers still earn enough to live in comfortable dry homes and bring up families, even if they can't go to Spain every year for their holidays, that isn't so much of an issue. But deskilling on jobs that have a global market is surely a route to poverty. And I thought we had already de-skilled many jobs which can't be exported, such as street cleaner, or road repairs, judging by the state of the streets of Edinburgh.

But that said, I would like to see genuine egalitarian policies, I just don't see the connectiong to "de-skilling". I think it needs to be more carefully laid out, at the moment my sleep deprived brain thinks the post is incomplete.

rolex yachtmaster

And a lot of it reflects a switch from bank deposits to securities; foreigners “other investments” in the UK, http://www.watchgy.com/ mostly bank deposits, fell by £143.2bn in Q1. And of course there’s no guarantee such buying will continue.

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