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Key Skills Framework
Enhancing employability within a lifelong learning paradigm

A working paper by the Skills Research Initiative
A prior version of this paper was accepted for presentation at the International Technology Education and Development (INTED) annual conference 2007.

Author - Aidan Kenny, Ray English, Dave Kilmartin


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The (new) organisation of work and employability

In modern Western industrialised societies it is now generally accepted that the expectation of ‘lifetime employment’, (see note 11) ‘single employment’ or continuous employment in the one specialised field is the exception rather than the norm. While working environments have greatly improved in terms of pay and conditions, the reverse side of the coin is insecurity of employment. With the introduction of part-time, short-term and fixed-term contracts, job sharing, contracting out work, project work and so forth, employees need to have the ability to cope with change. Some theorists (Sabel 1982; Brehony and Deem 2005) claim that work organisation in modern industrial societies has moved from ‘Fordism’, which is characterised by scientific management techniques, hierarchical structure, inflexible processes, specialisation and mass production, to ‘post Fordism’, which places an emphasis on, flexibility, decentralisation, team work, flat structure and information communications technology (ICT) utilisation. Harvey (2000) claims that graduates were facing new realities in the organisation of work due to three main organisational change strategies: downsizing: de-layering; and flexible contractual arrangements. Other more politically driven explanations highlight the incremental advancement of the neoliberal agenda which can be located in the ideology promoted by Reaganism and Thatcherism during the 1970–80s in the USA and the UK (see Beck 1999).

The neoliberal political agenda has become a dominant ideology pursued by European political parties, bureaucrats and technocrats. As such it is reshaping the education landscape throughout Europe. The overarching principles of neoliberalism are free trade, free capital mobility, the growing flexibility of labour, privatisation, restructuring of the welfare state, market economics and the movement of responsibility/choice from the state to the individual (see Hermann 2005). In an educational context neoliberalism refocuses the pedagogical discourse relating to vocationalism versus liberal education (see Pring 1996). The emergent dominant official policy inherent in this modernisation agenda targeting education places a distinct emphasis on the economic imperative of education, namely the return on investment or human capital theory (Becker 1964), and as such it leans towards ‘utilitarianism’ (Halstead 1996). If the post-Fordism and neoliberal thesis is accepted then the notion of employability could be perceived as a useful construct that could assist the policy formulation process with a view to preparing and equipping students/workers (see note 12) with skills in advance of the demand posed by the new reorganisation of work. It gives recognition to the new nature of work – mainly uncertainty – which workers are experiencing. An employability approach within this context seeks to develop strategies and capabilities that assist workers to ‘gain and maintain’ employment by learning new transferable skills (see Hillage and Pollard 1998). Morley (2001) terms this process ‘Producing new of workers’. She is critical of the motives behind the employability policy agenda, both in a political and philosophical sense, claiming that education is being ‘Japanised’, incorporating the values and approaches of industry and accepting the utilitarian education needs of modern capitalism. Further, she suggests that the employability agenda is a ‘decontextualised signifier’ failing to cater for issues such as gender, race, social class and disability. Sanders and de Grip (2003), in their study on low-skilled workers in the Netherlands, postulate the emergence and shift of emphasis in the employability agenda. Below we provide a snapshot of their work:

1950–60s         ‘individuals potential to become employed and attitude’
1970s               ‘occupational knowledge and skills, ability’
1980s               ‘meta-characteristics, attitude, knowledge, skills and career’
1990s               ‘career focus, ability, capacity to deal with change’

 


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