Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Talent is not scarce: most people can do most jobs

At a lecture called ‘The Social Craftsman’ given at University College London in November 2009, the eminent sociologist Richard Sennett argued that ‘Talent is not scarce: most people can do most jobs, given appropriate training and support, and therefore our obsession, particularly in the UK and the USA, to organise education primarily as a winnowing process, using continuous testing to weed out the few from the many, is wasteful to the economy as well as unfair in social terms.’

He started by asserting that successive governments in Britain and the US have effectively taken the view that ‘low-level’ jobs can be exported without damaging the economy, including service jobs such call-centre jobs as well as manufacturing jobs.

Robert Reich’s 1991 book The Work of Nations, articulated this view: ‘We are living through a transformation that will rearrange the politics and economics of the coming century,’ Reich noted. ‘There will be no national products or technologies, no national corporations, no national industries. There will be no national economies, at least as we have come to understand the concept. All that will remain rooted within national borders are the people who comprise a nation. Each nation’s primary assets will be its citizens’ skills and insights.’* Accordingly, developed societies need only foster ‘symbolic analyst’ jobs within their economies.

In Sennett’s view, this analysis initially appeared sound partly because of the exploitative, even imperialistic, way both the UK and the US think about foreign markets. The policies of our governments betray a restricted, static, non-developmental, non-social view of employment in relation to these lower level jobs. And what people in these foreign ‘client economies’ are achieving for themselves through these employment opportunities suggests this view is mistaken.

It is now clear that many people doing these jobs in other countries use their employment to build skills (starting often with learning English) and progress from being employees of a British company to employees of a local company to perhaps starting their own business, all a result of using their work to develop their skills. Sennett believes that almost all work, at whatever level, has this developmental potential – at least in principle – and that not seeing this is a serious and persistent mistake of UK and US employment and educational policy.

Sennett characterises the debate on how ‘skills’ are acquired as an ongoing argument between ‘endogenous’ theories of skill acquisition (in which learning is seen as a largely technical process common to all people and all contexts) and ‘cognitive situated’ theories, which see learning as deeply interconnected with the existing knowledge, understanding and motivation of each individual, and different in different contexts too. (He himself, ‘like any good Marxist’, he said, supports the second view.) We persistently try to ‘cut’ ability and talent much too finely, usually by using the blunt instrument of standardised testing in some form. His view on this is radical – he argues that most people can actually do reasonably well at most jobs – it’s only misleading test results and historic class prejudice that make us think differently.

In Britain and the US, it suits us to assume that talent is scarce and that it is therefore critical to identify the supposed one person in 20 who is capable. But in fact talent is not scarce. Most of the other 19 are just as capable in most circumstances, given the opportunity, educational support and the right social networks. Prevailing assumptions, however, lead us effectively to dump the 19, and to see the low status jobs they get (if they get a job at all) as not worthy of enriching with opportunities for professional or personal development.

We have limited awareness of, and generally little interest in fostering, the social and developmental dimensions of employment. Policy mostly ignores the potential of any work experience, provided it is sustained, to support the development of craft, social, civic and professional skills (understanding these in the broadest sense). The effectiveness for the economy of ‘just in time’ working patterns – repeated changing of jobs, short-term team working followed by dispersal, serial employment rather than sustained employment or careers – is exaggerated, while the disadvantages and costs of continual flexibility and volatility are systematically underestimated.

The net effect of this is that the UK and US exemplify a type of capitalism that (despite its rhetoric) is uninterested in developing human capital. The persistent idea that bankers and others in high-paid, privileged roles are by definition much more talented than those in lower status roles is an underlying cause of the recession and likely to mean that even after the recession, high unemployment and/or a significant ‘Macjob’ sector will continue to be toxic features of our economy, sustaining the vicious circle they are symptomatic of.

At the end of the lecture I asked him for his view on the idea that while too much testing was creating problems for sustained learning, at least it meant that there was less scope for discrimination in terms of access to jobs and higher education, Sennett responded with a story: one year during his stint as admissions registrar for Harvard University, an error in the admissions procedure allowed 90 students whose grades were clearly ‘not good enough’ to enter the university. All of them, he said, graduated brilliantly.....
* Reich, Robert B., (1991) The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves For 21st Century Capitalism

Richard Sennett
Born Chicago, 1943, studied piano and cello until hand injury in 1963
Attended University of Chicago & Harvard University, Ph.D. in 1969
1970s: Co-founded New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University
1980s: Advisor to UNESCO, president of the American Council on Work; teaching at Harvard
1990s to present: Divides time between New York University and the London School of Economics
Work: Social analyst interested in how individuals and groups make sense of material facts about where they live and the work they do
Books include: The Corrosion of Character, 1998, how middle-level employees make sense of the ‘new economy’
Respect in a World of Inequality, 2002, effects of new ways of working on the welfare state
The Culture of the New Capitalism, 2006, an over-view of change
The Craftsman, 2008, investigating the processes and work contexts which support people to develop the highest level of skill.

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