Sociology Skill
by
Duncan Gallie
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0095

Introduction

Changes in the level and structure of skills have been central to debates about social change for the last half-century. The pattern of skill development has been seen as crucial for economic growth through its implications for the productivity of the workforce. It also has been seen as vital to individual well-being due to its importance for identity and the capacity for self-development. It is widely recognized as a primary determinant of other aspects of social structure such as the quality of working conditions, patterns of work organization, the level of earnings inequality, and the characteristics of welfare institutions. But developments in skill have been highly controversial, with widely contrasting interpretations of their trends, determinants, and consequences. Theory and research in the first three postwar decades were dominated by contrasting universalistic arguments suggesting that similar trends were occurring across all of the advanced capitalist countries. More recently, it has been argued that there has been no single long-term direction of change but rather countries developed different types of “skills equilibrium,” which provided different forms of competitive advantage. These different visions of the past and future of skills rested on rather different conceptions of the nature of skill, associated with different views about the way skills and trends in skill should be measured. The different perspectives also embody different views about the key factors that determine skill patterns: with a sharp difference between those emphasizing the requirements of changing technology and those underlining the socially constructed nature of skill; and hence the importance of historically derived institutional systems.

General Overviews

In broad terms, there have been two long-term perspectives on the future of skills: the first envisaged a scenario of a trend to rising skills and the second a scenario of widespread deskilling. The most influential early statement of the upgrading these was in Kerr, et al. 1960 in the theory of industrialism. The general argument was extended by later theories of post-industrialism (Bell 1974) and the informational society (Castells and Aoyama 1994), taking account of the development of the service sector and the growth of information and communication technologies. The upskilling thesis became integrated into the official ideology of the European Union with its Lisbon Strategy mission statement of 2000, with its aim of creating a knowledge-based economy with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. But there has been skepticism about the social optimism of this scenario, with arguments that overall rising skills levels may not be as crucial for productivity as is sometimes suggested and may be accompanied by social polarization and a reduction of welfare (Crouch, et al. 1999). The founder of the contrasting theoretical tradition emphasizing the trend to deskilling in work was Georges Friedmann (Friedmann 1955), although its influence in the Anglo-Saxon literature derives primarily from (Braverman 1974). From the 1990s, the pessimistic scenario was increasingly displaced by a polarization thesis that pointed to a simultaneous growth of the high- and low-skilled sectors of the workforce (Kalleberg 2011). Most recently there has also been a rejection of the view that advanced societies follow a broadly similar path of skill development and the emergence of theories of societal differences in types of skill and systems of skill formation (Gallie 2007).

  • Bell, D. 1974. The coming of post-industrial society. London: Heinemann.

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    Much-cited text that argued for the growing centrality of knowledge for production and introduced the concept of “post-industrialism.” The evolution of the skill structure is toward managerial, professional, and technical work in the service sector. This is a more qualified view of the implications for social stratification than the theory of industrialism, recognizing the risks of increasing marginalization of the low skilled.

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    • Braverman, H. 1974. Labor and monopoly capital: The degradation of work in the twentieth century. New York: Monthly Review Press.

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      Launched the “Labour Process” tradition of theory and research in the Anglo-Saxon countries. Very similar in its general argument to Friedmann, albeit with remarkably little recognition of his contribution. But extends the logic of the argument to white-collar work and the service sector.

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      • Castells, M., and Y. Aoyama. 1994. Paths towards the informational society: Employment structure in G-7 countries, 1920–90. International Labour Review 133.1: 5–33.

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        An elaboration on Bell’s argument but emphasizing more specifically the critical role of knowledge in the context of new information and communication technologies: micro-electronics, computer software, and genetic engineering. Points to a general trend toward the upgrading of skills in the “informational society,” with an increasing share of occupations requiring higher skills and advanced education.

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        • Crouch, C., D. Finegold, and M. Sako. 1999. Are skills the answer? The political economy of skill creation in advanced industrial countries. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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          A well-informed critique of the “utopian” scenario of progressive economic and social development through the improvement of education and skills. Accepts that the economic competitiveness of advanced societies is likely to depend upon a continuous process of upskilling but questions whether this is likely to resolve problems of high unemployment, income inequality, and social welfare.

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          • Friedmann, Georges. 1955. Industrial society: The emergence of the human problems of automation. New York: Free Press.

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            Originally published in French in 1946, this is the classic version of the deskilling argument. This book founded the French tradition of “sociologie du travail.” Generalizing from the Taylorist “scientific management” principles, it emphasized the use of time and motion study and of mechanization to subdivide and simplify tasks, with destructive effects both for the experience of work and for opportunities for self-development.

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            • Gallie, D. 2007. Production regimes and the quality of work in Europe. Annual Review of Sociology 33:5.1–5.20.

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              A critical assessment of the argument that national differences in production regimes lead to different levels and types of skills in the workforce, with significant implications for the broader quality of work.

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              • Kalleberg, A. L. 2011. Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s to 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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                An impressive overview of the changing nature of US employment. Argues strongly for the long-term tendencies for skill polarization, with increases both in high- and low-skilled jobs but a decline in intermediate skills. Also claims that job insecurity is becoming more pervasive even among those with higher skills.

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                • Kerr, C., J. T. Dunlop, F. Harbison, and C. A. Myers. 1960. Industrialism and industrial man. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

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                  Highly influential synthesis of a vast postwar cross-national research program on changes in management, industrial relations, and skills. The principal theoretical statement of the liberal theory of industrialism. It argued for a long-term trend to convergence between advanced societies, involving rising levels of specialized skills that would transform the power balance between management and labor and lead to “pluralistic industrialism.”

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                  Journals

                  The centrality of issues of skill to the dynamics of the broader social structure has meant that important articles have appeared in journals from a wide range of disciplines: Economics, Sociology, Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management, and Political Economy. There is considerable overlap in the thematic issues addressed across the different disciplinary journals, and the key controversies in the field can only be followed by navigating between them.

                  Economics

                  In economics, particularly influential papers have been published in Oxford Review of Economic Policy, Review of Economics and Statistics the National Institute Economic Review, and Quarterly Journal of Economics.

                  Sociology

                  Some of the most significant sociology contributions have been published in Work and Occupations, Work, Employment and Society, Gender, Work and Organization and Sociologie du travail.

                  Industrial Relations and Human Resource Management

                  There also has been a growing interest in journals focusing on industrial relations and human resource management, perhaps most notably British Journal of Industrial Relations, the International Journal of Human Resource Management, and Human Resource Management Journal.

                  Political Economy

                  More recently journals, with an interest in political economy, such as Comparative Political Studies and the Socio-Economic Review, have also moved into this terrain with the growing interest in the links between political structures, business organization, and skill formation.

                  Theories of Societal Differences in Skills

                  From the late 1980s, there was a growing challenge to the universalistic assumptions of the dominant theories of work, which assumed that trends would be broadly similar across diverse capitalist societies or indeed across all advanced industrial societies. Instead it was suggested that countries could develop distinctive skill regimes that would provide different types of competitive advantage. The origins of this approach can be traced to the Aix “societal” school of industrial sociology (see Maurice, et al. 1986), which developed the contrast between systems based on formal vocational qualifications and those relying on in-firm skill training (with their implications for the relative importance of occupational and vocational labor markets). The emphasis on societal differences became influential in Anglo-Saxon research, however, primarily through the development of the “varieties of capitalism” thesis. The most influential early statements of the latter approach were Finegold and Soskice 1988 and Hall and Soskice 2001. These strongly emphasized the role of employer strategies in determining decisions about skill formation and skill structure. This view became increasingly contested, as it became evident that explanation of the empirical differences between national skill systems needed to take account of the broader balance of power resources reflected in the strength of political parties and of organized labor (for instance, Iversen and Stephens 2008).

                  • Finegold, D., and D. Soskice. 1988. The failure of training in Britain: Analysis and prescription. Oxford Review of Economic Policy 4.3: 21–53.

                    DOI: 10.1093/oxrep/4.3.21Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                    A key paper in the development of the “varieties of capitalism” thesis. Argues that Britain was trapped in a “low-skills equilibrium.” Contrasts this with France and especially Germany, with their broad skill base allowing better quality and more customized products. Emphasizes the embeddedness of training patterns in a broader set of societal institutions.

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                    • Hall, Peter A., and D. Soskice, ed. 2001. Varieties of capitalism: The institutional foundations of comparative advantage. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                      DOI: 10.1093/0199247757.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                      The reference text for the “varieties of capitalism” thesis. Contrasts two models of advanced capitalism characterized by different principles of coordination: the “Liberal Market Economies” (LMEs) and the “Coordinated Market Economies” (CMEs). While employers in LMEs draw on general skills, those in CMEs give priority to specific skills acquired through extensive initial vocational training.

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                      • Iversen, T., and J. D. Stephens. 2008. Partisan politics, the welfare state, and three worlds of human capital formation. Comparative Political Studies 41.4–5: 600–637.

                        DOI: 10.1177/0010414007313117Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                        Critique of the conceptualization of skill formation systems in varieties of capitalism theory. Argues for the distinctiveness of the Nordic compared to the Continental European systems. In the former, a focus on redistribution and social equality leads to high levels of both general and specific skills. This is especially the case at the bottom of the skill distribution, creating a more compressed skill structure.

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                        • Maurice, M., F. Sellier, and J.-J. Silvestre. 1986. The social foundations of industrial power: A comparison of France and Germany. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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                          Founded the “societal” tradition of industrial sociology, rejecting the view of long-term convergence between advanced societies. Comparing workplaces in France and Germany, it highlighted their different forms of skill recruitment, with general education qualifications playing a larger role in France and job-related training certificates in Germany. These skill differences affected internal mobility within the firm, authority relations and pay systems.

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                          Conceptualizations of Skill

                          Underlying the contrasting visions of the long-term process of skill change are rather different concepts of skill. A key distinction is between “individual or personal skills” and “job skills” (Green 2013). While generally recognizing technology as a prime mover, economic research has tended until recently to focus on individual skills or “human capital.” Becker’s classic study (Becker 1993) both laid the general foundations of human capital theory and introduced the influential distinction between “general” and “specific” training, concepts that have become increasingly confused in the subsequent literature (Streeck 2012). Individual skills also have been the focus of a growing interest in skill as “competence” or practical ability in the performance of work, an approach that initially derived from cognitive psychology (Oiry 2003). Sociological research, in contrast, has focused directly on the skill requirements of jobs (Spenner 1990). The conceptualization of job skills, however, has been controversial. Following the Marxian tradition, proponents of the “deskilling” argument have tended to think of skill as “autonomy,” whereas theorists of “skill upgrading” emphasized a conception of skill as “substantive complexity” (Spenner 1990, Attewell 1990). There has been a long-standing contrast between conceptual (or cognitive) and manual skills, and considerable debate about the assumption that they imply a hierarchy of skill level (Attewell 1990). More recently, partly in the context of the growth and distinctiveness of women’s employment, attention has focused on whether “social” skills are a distinct category of skill, which in turn broadened into a discussion of the potential importance of “emotional” and “aesthetic” skills (Hochschild 1983, Warhurst and Nickson 2007).

                          • Attewell, P. 1990. What is Skill? Work and Occupations 17.4: 422–448.

                            DOI: 10.1177/0730888490017004003Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                            A discussion of four different theoretical approaches to skill: the positivist, the ethnomethodological, the constructionist Weberian, and the neo-Marxist approaches. Critical, in particular, of positivist conceptions of skill that emphasize the cognitive complexity of jobs (e.g., conscious problem solving) and fail to take account of abilities that are mastered to a point where they do not involve reflection.

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                            • Becker, G. S. 1993. Human capital: A theoretical and empirical analysis with special relevance to education. 3d ed. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

                              DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226041223.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                              A classic text in the development of human capital theory. The second edition, published in 1975, extended the argument into “a general theory of human capital,” covering not only college and high-school education but on-the-job training. It introduced the influential distinction between “general training” and “specific” training, which increases employees’ marginal productivity more in the firms providing it.

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                              • Green, Francis. 2013. Skills and skilled work: An economic and social analysis. Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                The most comprehensive recent account of different perspectives on skill. Seeks to create a unified framework drawing upon the different traditions of economics, sociology, and social psychology. Emphasizes the conceptual distinction between individual skills emphasized by economists’ human capital theory and job skills emphasized by sociological theories of work, given their different determinants and the importance of assessing and understanding skill mismatch.

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                                • Hochschild, A. R. 1983. The managed heart: The commercialization of human feeling. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

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                                  An influential text that introduced the concept of emotional labor into discussions about skill. Emotional labor is “the management of feeling to create a publicly observable facial and bodily display.” Many jobs, including flight attendants, hospital assistants, and debt collectors, require an ability to manage the worker’s own emotions or those of the people they are working with.

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                                  • Oiry, E. 2003. De la qualification à la compétence, rupture ou continuité? Paris: L’Harmattan.

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                                    Provides an excellent overview of the evolving debate about “competence” as skill. Although originating in the United States, serious reflection on the relevance of “competence” or practical ability in contrast to formal knowledge developed particularly in France. Highlights the diverse and changing meanings of “competence,” particularly from the early 1990s, and its relevance to new employer strategies.

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                                    • Spenner, K. I. 1990. Skill: Meaning, methods and measures. Work and Occupations 17:399–421.

                                      DOI: 10.1177/0730888490017004002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                      Reviews concepts and measures of skill in the social sciences. Detects an emerging consensus about two organizing dimensions: substantive complexity and autonomy. Substantive complexity refers to the level, scope, and integration of mental, manipulative, and interpersonal tasks in a job; and autonomy refers to the discretion available to control the content, manner, and speed with which tasks are carried out.

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                                      • Streeck, W. 2012. Skills and politics: General and specific. In The political economy of collective skill formation. Edited by Marius R. Busemeyer and Christine Trampusch. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                        Acerbic critique of the use of the concepts of “specific” and “general” skills in the literature, particularly by “varieties of capitalism” theorists. Argues that it is essential to distinguish the issues of portability from the level of skill. Also rejects the theory’s claims about the links between skill formation and welfare systems in favor of an historical institutionalist power resource approach.

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                                        • Warhurst, C., and D. Nickson. 2007. Who’s got the look? Emotional, aesthetic and sexualized labour in interactive services. Gender, Work and Organisation 163:385–404.

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                                          In the interactive service economy, appearance, body language, voice, and accent as well as social and emotional skills may be important for business success. While these may be to a significant degree natural or derived from early family socialization, the authors argue that they can be developed by employers as valued skills, through training, to create a specific “employer brand” of self-presentation.

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                                          The Measurement of Skills

                                          In line with the different conceptualizations of skill in the literature, measurement strategies for assessing skill levels and skill trends have varied sharply. Researchers concerned with individuals’ skills have focused primarily on educational and vocational training attainment (Prais 1989 and Mason, et al. 1992). In contrast, those concerned with the skill content of jobs have tried to assess changes in job complexity either through changes in the structure of occupations (Elias and McKnight 2001) or through direct job skill measures based on self-report (for instance, Felstead, et al. 2007) or expert job analysis (e.g., Cappelli 1993). There has been an increasing consensus that the learning time required to be able to do a task well is the most relevant indicator of job-skill level in the sense of technical complexity (Form 1987), although it has evident limitations with respect to capturing tacit and interpersonal skills. These different approaches have led to the emergence of major new data sets. See Eurostat’s European Labour Force Survey for changes in occupational structure, the OECD surveys measuring skill as competence, Eurostat’s Continuing Vocational Training Surveys, the US O*Net database of occupational descriptors, and the British Skills and Employment Surveys, which have measured changes in skills over a twenty-year period.

                                          • Cappelli, P. 1993. Are skill requirements rising? Evidence from production and clerical jobs. Industrial and Labor Relations Review 46.3: 515–530.

                                            DOI: 10.2307/2524550Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                            Examines changes in skill requirements in manufacturing and clerical establishments in the ten years after 1978, using expertly collected job analysis data. Found significant upskilling occurring within most production jobs in manufacturing. Changes in clerical jobs are more complicated and suggest an even split between jobs that were upskilled and those that were deskilled.

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                                            • Elias, P., and A. McKnight. 2001. Skill measurement in official statistics: Recent developments in the UK and the rest of Europe. Oxford Economic Papers: Special Issue on Skill Measurement and Economic Analysis 53.3: 508–540.

                                              DOI: 10.1093/oep/53.3.508Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                              A cautionary note on the use of occupational classification systems for measuring skill change. Traces the marked changes in the picture of skill distribution in the United Kingdom of moving from the Standard Occupational Classification System 1990 (SOC90) to its replacement (SOC2000). Also points to the problems in making cross-national skill comparisons using the International Standard Classification of Occupations (ISCO-88).

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                                              • Felstead, A., D. Gallie, F. Green, and Y. Zhou. 2007. Skills at work 1986–2006. Oxford: ESRC Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organizational Performance SKOPE.

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                                                A study of the changing level of skills in the British workforce over two decades, based on data from the nationally representative British Skills Surveys. Argues for the importance of the direct measurement of job skills. Strongly confirms the upskilling thesis with respect to task complexity. However, it also shows a marked decline of employee control over their work tasks.

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                                                • Form, W. 1987. On the degradation of skills. Annual Review of Sociology 13:29–47.

                                                  DOI: 10.1146/annurev.so.13.080187.000333Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                  Lucid overview of the skill trends debate. Argues that measures of skill in terms of substantive complexity are superior to those of autonomy. Suggests that the best indicator of skill is the total preparation time a job requires for an average worker to attain an average level performance, taking into account general education, special vocational, or professional training, and on-the-job experience.

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                                                  • Mason, G., S. J. Prais, and B. van Ark. 1992. Vocational education and productivity in the Netherlands and Britain. National Institute Economic Review 140:45–63.

                                                    DOI: 10.1177/002795019214000104Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                    Focusing on qualifications in matched workplaces (thirty-six plants with a total of 12,500 employees), the researchers found much higher levels of vocational qualification in the Netherlands than in Britain. Comparisons of workplaces in engineering and food processing concluded that the higher average levels of workforce skills and knowledge in the Dutch samples contributed to higher productivity.

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                                                    • Prais, S. J. 1989. Qualified manpower in engineering: Britain and other industrially advanced countries. National Institute Economic Review February 127:76–83.

                                                      DOI: 10.1177/002795018912700107Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                      An influential study of the British skills deficit in engineering, based on an analysis of qualifications. Highlights the lack of specialized engineers with master’s degrees compared to other countries and especially the far fewer trained craftsmen. France and Japan trained two or three times as many qualified craftsmen in mechanical, electrical, and construction occupations.

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                                                      Empirical Studies of Skill Trends

                                                      Empirical studies of skill trends have primarily confirmed the upskilling thesis (Handel 2012). But (at least in the United States and the United Kingdom) there is also support for the view that intermediary-skill occupations have been declining to a greater extent than non-skilled occupations (Wright and Dwyer 2003, Goos and Manning 2007). This has not been the case, however, for other European countries, at least until the period of the financial crash of 2008 (Tahlin 2007, Fernandez-Macias, et al. 2012). Patterns of skill change would appear then to differ substantially between countries, possibly as a result of the nature of employment regulation or of immigration policies. Theories of skill trends have largely failed to account for the persisting differentials between men and women both in the required education for jobs (Handel 2012) and in the rewards received at given levels of skill (Blau 2012).

                                                      • Blau, F. D. 2012. Gender, inequality and wages. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                                        DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199665853.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                        An impressive contribution to the literature on the gender pay gap. Shows that a diminishing pay gap may be associated with an increasing share of the gap that cannot be explained by qualifications and skills. Highlights the substantial international variations in the extent of the pay gap and argues that an important factor accounting for this is the nature of labor market institutions.

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                                                        • Fernandez-Macias, Enrique, John Hurley, and Donald Storrie, eds. 2012. Transformation of the employment structure in the EU and USA, 1995–2007. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave Macmillan.

                                                          DOI: 10.1057/9780230369818Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                          The most thorough recent empirical examination of the polarization thesis. Concludes that the evidence points most strongly in favor of skill upgrading. But there has been considerable diversity in the patterns of job expansion in Europe. This undermines deterministic views of the implications of technological change for polarization of the occupational structure and points to the importance of institutional factors.

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                                                          • Goos, M., and A. Manning. 2007. Lousy and lovely jobs: The rising polarization of work in Britain. Review of Economics and Statistics 89.1: 118–133.

                                                            DOI: 10.1162/rest.89.1.118Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                            An examination of the trends in skills in Britain in the light of Autor’s argument about the implications technology has on the elimination of more easily “routinized” intermediate skills. Using income to create a hierarchical classification of job skills, this study concludes that there has been a definite trend to polarization.

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                                                            • Handel, Michael J. 2012. Trends in job skill demands in OECD countries. Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 143. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

                                                              DOI: 10.1787/5k8zk8pcq6td-enSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                              The most rigorous study to date of trends in skill structure. Combines data on the evolution of the occupational structure with US O*Net measures of the skill requirements of specific types of job. Confirms a long-term process of upskilling in both the US and European countries. But finds little evidence of an acceleration of this trend in the more recent period.

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                                                              • Tahlin, M. 2007. Skills and wages in European labour markets: Structure and change. In Employment regimes and the quality of work. Edited by D. Gallie. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

                                                                DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199230105.001.0001Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                A skeptical view of the skill polarization argument using data from a number of European countries (France, Germany, Spain, Sweden and the United Kingdom) between 1975 and 2004. Finds clear evidence of polarization only in the United Kingdom. The main trend over time has upskilling, and there has been a growing convergence of the skills of male and female employees.

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                                                                • Wright, E. O., and R. E. Dwyer. 2003. The patterns of job expansions in the USA: A comparison of the 1960s and 1990s. Socio-Economic Review 1:289–325.

                                                                  DOI: 10.1093/soceco/1.3.289Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                  Influential paper examining the changing quality of jobs in the United States from the 1960s through the 1990s. Unlike the non-polarized upgrading of the 1960s, the 1990s saw a strong expansion of jobs in the top tier combined with weak growth in the middle and moderately strong growth at the bottom. This reflected immigration and the growth of retail and personal services.

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                                                                  The Problem of Skill Mismatch

                                                                  The view that the education and training levels required for the job are the most reliable measures of skill trends has become increasingly influential. But there has been an important current of dissent. Berg 2003 argues that there may be little relationship between the qualifications employers require and the actual tasks involved in the job. This was extended by Collins 1979 into a more general thesis that educational qualifications are best understood as a form of credentialism, more important for the status they confer than for the skills they provide. This line of argument has led to an increased interest in the extent of, trends in, and consequences of mismatch between employees’ educational qualifications and the skills really required for their work tasks. As McGuiness 2006 spells out there can be very diverse approaches to measuring educational mismatch. But overall estimates from the diverse measures of the extent of mismatch are rather similar. It is important, however, to distinguish qualification mismatch from real skill mismatch: less than half of the overqualified are likely to be overskilled for their jobs (Quintini 2011). There is a fairly high level of agreement, however, that enduring skill mismatch has serious consequences for employees’ experiences of work (Borghans and de Grip 2000, Kalleberg 2007). In a longer-term perspective, it has been argued that skill mismatches have major consequences for the pay premium for skills and consequently for pay inequality (Goldin and Katz 2008).

                                                                  • Berg, I. 2003. Education and jobs: The great train robbery. Clinton Corners, NY: Percheron.

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                                                                    A seminal study, originally published in 1970, challenging the premise of human capital theory that the rise in educational requirements for jobs reflected an increase in their skill level. Rather employers frequently hire people with required levels of education into jobs that do not give opportunities for the use of their education, leading to highly negative consequences for employees’ work experiences.

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                                                                    • Borghans, L., and A. de Grip, eds. 2000. The overeducated Worker: The economics of skill utilization. Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar.

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                                                                      Useful collection of papers on the sources and consequences of overeducation in jobs in a number of European countries. Dutch research indicates that underutilization of educational skills may affect the wages not only of people who are actually working below their educational level but also, due to increased competition, of those who do find a job at their own educational level.

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                                                                      • Collins, R. 1979. The credential society: An historical sociology of education and stratification. New York: Academic Press.

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                                                                        An influential exposition of the “credentialism” argument that educational qualifications reflect a form of influence through status, giving access to jobs and economic rewards that is not necessarily attributable to the skills they provide or their economic value.

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                                                                        • Goldin, C., and L. F. Katz. 2008. The race between education and technology. Cambridge, MA: Belknap.

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                                                                          Influential deployment of human capital theory to account for variations in earnings inequality in the United States across the 20th century. Argues that inequalities reflect the balance between technologically driven increases in skill requirements and the availability of skilled labor. Periods of earnings compression are periods of educational expansion, and periods of rising wage inequality result from a decline in educational attainment.

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                                                                          • Kalleberg, A. L. 2007. The mismatched worker. New York: W. W. Norton.

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                                                                            Examines trends in qualification mismatch in the United States between 1972 and 2002. Finds a major increase in overqualification over time. While overqualification may partly reflect employers’ concern to select and test new entrants before later promotion, organizational downsizing and economic downturn may lead to longer-term entrapment.

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                                                                            • McGuiness, S. 2006. Overeducation in the labour market. Journal of Economic Surveys 20.3: 387–418.

                                                                              DOI: 10.1111/j.0950-0804.2006.00284.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                              A useful overview of the literature on educational mismatch. Discusses different approaches to measurement and their implications for estimates of the extensiveness of mismatch. A review of empirical findings from a wide range of studies from different countries indicates that the incidence of overeducation varies between 22 percent and 29 percent. But this study finds no clear evidence that overeducation has been rising over time.

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                                                                              • Quintini, G. 2011. Right for the job: Over-qualified or underskilled? OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers 120. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

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                                                                                Useful overview of the literature, skeptical of the extent to which qualification mismatch represents real skill mismatch. Only 40 percent of workers who are “overqualified” feel that they have the skills to cope with more demanding tasks. The gap reflects skill heterogeneity between workers, differences in the complexity and responsibilities of jobs within occupations, and the effects of labor market disruption.

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                                                                                Technology and Skill Trends

                                                                                Arguments about skill trends are most commonly premised on assumptions about the changing nature of production technologies. Whereas deskilling arguments, drawing on the earlier neo-Marxian tradition, emphasized the growth of mass production technology (at the extreme exemplified by the large assembly-line production units of the automobile industry), upskilling arguments have speculated about the potentially transformative character of automation, the spread of micro-electronics, and the growing importance of informational technologies in eliminating low-skilled work and providing opportunities for skill development. Robert Blauner (Blauner 1964) provided a challenging synthesis of the two traditions, arguing that whereas technological developments such as the assembly line encouraged deskilling in the interwar period, they increasingly encouraged upskilling in the postwar era due to the spread of automation. This argument was updated in Piore and Sabel 1984, highlighting the potential of developments in micro-electronics to regenerate the importance of skills in work and by Hirschhorn 1984, developing the implications of automation for learning requirements. This scenario was to receive increasing support even from research in the automobile industry (Kern and Schumann 1987, Womack, et al. 1990), which earlier studies had taken as the exemplar case for the deskilling argument. It became embedded in economic theory and research, as the theory of “skill biased technological change,” which argued that computerization in particular was driving a long-term upskilling process. This was held to account for growing wage inequality in the 1980s, although the argument has been subject to persuasive critique (Card and DiNardo 2002). Moreover, Autor, et al. 2003 challenges the view that the impact of new technologies on skill was unidirectional, arguing that they led to polarization through their tendency to eliminate intermediate-level jobs that had clearly defined routines that were relatively easily programmable.

                                                                                • Autor, David H., Franc Levy, and Richard J. Murnane. 2003. The skill content of recent technological change: An empirical exploration. Quarterly Journal of Economics 118:1279–1333.

                                                                                  DOI: 10.1162/003355303322552801Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                  Seminal article in the development of theories of occupational polarization. Argues that computers substitute for workers performing cognitive and manual tasks that can be accomplished by following explicit rules, while they complement the skills of those performing non-routine problem-solving and complex communication tasks. Presents evidence that computerization is associated with reduced employment of routine manual and routine cognitive tasks and increased employment of those in non-routine cognitive tasks.

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                                                                                  • Blauner, R. 1964. Alienation and freedom: The factory worker and his industry. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

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                                                                                    A classic study of the relationship between technology and skill. Argues that neo-Marxian predictions of deskilling reflected a particular phase in the development of production systems: the transition from craft to mass-production technology. But in the postwar period, the growth of automated production has led to a reskilling of the workforce in the context of collective teamwork.

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                                                                                    • Card, D., and J. E. DiNardo. 2002. Skill-biased technological change and rising wage inequality: Some problems and puzzles. Journal of Labor Economics 20.4: 733–783.

                                                                                      DOI: 10.1086/342055Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                      Critical assessment of different versions of the skill-biased technological change thesis, this study argues, inter alia, that the detailed timing of increases in wage inequalities fits poorly with that of the diffusion of computer-based technologies and that institutional explanations (in terms of the decline of the minimum wage and trade unions) provide a more adequate account.

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                                                                                      • Hirschhorn, L. 1984. Beyond mechanization. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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                                                                                        Argues that flexible automation increases learning requirements, creating structural tension with traditional systems of management control. While resolving more efficiently expected errors, it increases the frequency and cost of unanticipated errors. These can only be efficiently handled by operators who have built up extensive experience of the production system and have the autonomy to exercise judgement in their responses.

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                                                                                        • Kern, H., and M. Schumann. 1987. Limits of the division of labour: New production and employment concepts in West German industry. Economic and Industrial Democracy 8.1: 151–170.

                                                                                          DOI: 10.1177/0143831X8782002Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                          On the basis of research in the car, machine tool, and chemical industries, this article argues that new production concepts are emerging, involving a growing regard for qualifications and independent skills. But the authors point out that this is taking place largely in the “industrial core sectors” and is at the cost of the employment opportunities of older and less qualified workers.

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                                                                                          • Piore, M. J., and C. F. Sabel. 1984. The second industrial divide: Possibilities for prosperity. New York: Basic Books.

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                                                                                            A recasting of Blauner’s argument in the context of the spread of micro-electronics, which allows for increased competitiveness through “flexible specialization.” New forms of flexible automation reduce the traditional advantages of scale and encourage competition through high quality customized production. Envisages the renewal of craft-type forms of production in small firms with skilled workers.

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                                                                                            • Womack, J. P., D. T. Jones, and D. Roos. 1990. The machine that changed the world. New York: Rawson Associates.

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                                                                                              Placed the concept of “lean production” at the center of debates. Drawing on an international comparative study of the automobile industry, this book affirmed the competitive advantage of the Japanese Toyota system. This required a skilled and highly motivated workforce, continuing skill development, flexibility in work assignments, teamwork, and an emphasis on constantly improving quality of both products and work processes.

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                                                                                              Skill and Work Organization

                                                                                              From the 1970s, however, there was an increasing challenge to the “technological determinism” of such arguments, suggesting that the social contexts (both at micro and at macro level) in which technologies are introduced is crucial for their implications for the nature of skill patterns (Lam 2000). At the micro level, research (for example, Osterman 1995; Bresnahan, et al. 2002; Rainbird, et al. 2004; Felstead, et al. 2009; Gallie, et al. 2012) has pointed to the importance of workplace organizational structures that encourage or restrict learning and skill development. These result partly from managerial choice and partly from the structure of power relations in the workplace.

                                                                                              • Bresnahan, T. F., E. Brynjolfsson, and L. M. Hitt. 2002. Information technology, workplace organization, and the demand for skilled labour: Firm-level evidence. Quarterly Journal of Economics (February): 339–376.

                                                                                                DOI: 10.1162/003355302753399526Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                Interesting study of factors affecting skill patterns based on research in US technology. Finds that work organization and product development are complementary in encouraging the use of more skilled labor. The effects of IT on skill are greater when IT is combined with particular organizational systems, such as team-based work organization and systems that give significant individual decision authority about work pace and work methods.

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                                                                                                • Felstead, A., A. Fuller, N. Jewson, and L. Unwin. 2009. Improving working as learning. New York: Routledge.

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                                                                                                  Focuses on how people learn new skills as part of their everyday working lives. Drawing on a set of case studies (inter alia, local authority, health, fitness, university contract research, sandwich production), this study argues that different systems of work organization can enhance or restrict learning opportunities and skill development. Work organization is in turn constrained by the broader productive system.

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                                                                                                  • Gallie, D., Y. Zhou, A. Felstead, and F. Green. 2012. Teamwork, skill development and employee welfare. British Journal of Industrial Relations 50.1: 23–46.

                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8543.2010.00787.xSave Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                    An analysis of the implications of teamwork using data from the national Skills and Employment Surveys in the United Kingdom. Finds that teamwork that provides significant decision-making powers to employees encourages skill development, whereas this is not the case for teamwork that leaves traditional supervisory authority intact. However, although teamwork has been increasing, this has been predominantly the more passive form of teamwork.

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                                                                                                    • Lam, A. 2000. Tacit knowledge, organizational learning and societal institutions: An integrated framework. Organization Studies 21:488–513.

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                                                                                                      Thought-provoking paper on the relationship between organizational structure, knowledge creation, and wider societal institutions. Drawing on tacit knowledge is crucial for innovation. Use of tacit knowledge facilitated by organizational structures based upon the knowledge of individual experts or that rely on semi-autonomous teamwork to diffuse tacit knowledge. Different types of national education systems and labor markets favor specific types of organizational forms.

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                                                                                                      • Osterman, P. 1995. Skill, training and work organization in American establishments. Industrial Relations 34.2: 125–146.

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                                                                                                        Critique of a deterministic view of the relationship between technology and skill. The implications of technology depend on the type of organizational structure. Drawing on a survey of private sector establishments, this study finds that establishments that introduce high performance work organization provide more training than do other establishments, as do firms with more “humanistic” values and with a union presence.

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                                                                                                        • Rainbird, H., A. Fuller, and A. Munro. 2004. Workplace learning in context. London: Routledge.

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                                                                                                          A collection of papers on the workplace as a learning environment, drawing on case studies. Maintains that skills are developed not only through formal education and training but also through experience and learning by doing. Important determinants of skill development are the opportunity for participation and the forms of social interaction within the workplace. This will partly reflect power relations in the workplace.

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                                                                                                          Macro-Level Influences on Patterns of Skill Formation

                                                                                                          At the macro level, employer choices about skill development in the workplace may be affected by broader institutional structures, such as the nature of initial educational and training systems and the political structure of policymaking (for example, Jurgens, et al. 1993 and Finegold and Wagner 1999). The implications of such systems, however, may be different for men and women (Estevez-Abe 2005) and for employees from different social classes (Mayer and Solga 2008). The current structure of skill formation systems have to be understood in terms of long-term paths of historical development, often contingent upon the political context of power relations in critical periods of development (Thelen 2004, Busemeyer and Trampusch 2012).

                                                                                                          • Busemeyer, M. R., and C. Trampusch, eds. 2012. The political economy of collective skill formation. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                            Important collection of papers on the differences between (and the origins of) skill formation systems in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Austria, and Denmark. A cautionary note against the oversimplified conceptualization of “coordinated market economies” in “varieties of capitalism” theory. Argues for the importance of political factors in the determination of skills systems, deriving from nationally specific patterns of historical development.

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                                                                                                            • Estevez-Abe, M. 2005. Gender bias in skills and social policies: The varieties of capitalism perspective on sex segregation. Social Politics 12.2: 180–215.

                                                                                                              DOI: 10.1093/sp/jxi011Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                              Breaks with the positive account of the implications of specific skills in the “varieties of capitalism” theory to argue that they may accentuate gender segregation. Specific skills put women at a disadvantage more than general skills. Cross-national variations in occupational segregation can be attributed to differences in national skill profiles: countries in which employers rely on specific skills experience greater degrees of occupational segregation by gender.

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                                                                                                              • Finegold, D., and K. Wagner. 1999. The German skill creation system and team based production: Competitive asset or liability? In The German skills machine: Sustaining comparative advantage in a global economy. Edited by P. D. Culpepper, and D. Finegold. New York: Berghahn.

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                                                                                                                Examines the significance of national skill formation systems for employer investment in employee skill development. Contrary to early versions of the “varieties of capitalism” theory, this study underlines the more extensive firm-specific skill development in liberal market economies such as in the United States. Taking into account continuing training, differences in skill levels between the United States and Germany are much less significant than is suggested by initial vocational qualifications.

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                                                                                                                • Jurgens, U., T. Malsch, and K. Dohse. 1993. Breaking from Taylorism. Changing forms of work in the automobile industry. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

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                                                                                                                  Impressive contribution to the international research program on the automobile industry, although more rigorous with respect to evidence and more cautious in expectations about change. Emphasizes the different approaches to skill development in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Germany, despite similar technologies. Also underlines the sharp resistance to new production concepts in the United Kingdom and in Germany.

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                                                                                                                  • Mayer, K. U., and H. Solga, eds. 2008. Skill formation. Interdisciplinary and cross-national perspectives. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                                                                    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511499593Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                    An interdisciplinary set of essays focusing on country variations in skill-formation systems. Particularly interesting for its discussion of the socially constructed nature of skill qualifications and the implications of institutional variations for patterns of social inequality in qualification attainment and opportunities for training. Emphasizes the ongoing effects of early class differences for further skill development.

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                                                                                                                    • Thelen, K. 2004. How institutions evolve: The political economy of skills in Germany, Britain, the United States, and Japan. New York: Cambridge Univ. Press.

                                                                                                                      DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511790997Save Citation »Export Citation »E-mail Citation »

                                                                                                                      Pioneering study of the historical roots of different national skill formation systems, focusing in particular on Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and Japan. Emphasizes the role of business in the evolution of training systems but also the importance of labor organizations and the state. Argues against a strong view of path dependency, highlighting structural continuity as a process of ongoing political negotiation.

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