The real skill that's missing is thinking

4th February 2005 at 00:00
The need for more construction workers in a decade or so is the latest in a long list of skills panics in the national press. The chattering classes love talking up lost craft skills.

If there were rows of thatched houses in Islington, there would be complaints in the media about yet another "skills gap" because of the shortage of thatchers.

No doubt City and Islington and other further education colleges would be putting on courses in thatching. There would be waiting lists of hundreds of young people wanting to enrol, having heard that thatchers can earn hundreds of thousands of pounds a year in the capital.

This is the story of skills shortages in various trades that we hear from time to time - most recently concerning the dearth of plumbers. According to the Association of Colleges, there are long waiting lists on all plumbing courses. In a few years we will presumably have headlines like "Too many plumbers in the pipeline".

Thatchers and plumbers are good examples if we want to understand the nature of skills and why the Government and employers have become "skill crazy". Thatching is an archaic, perhaps even arcane, skill. It survives as another quaint part of Britain's heritage, like the skills involved in morris dancing. Plumbing has not yet been consigned to the category of heritage skill, but with the advent of plastic pipes and ready-made joints, the traditional plumbing skills are only needed in places where modern fittings can't be used or a quick repair is all that is necessary.

Plumbing is now becoming a relatively low-skilled or even unskilled profession. Anecdotal evidence of this is that a former colleague of mine, now an Oxbridge don, says that even he has turned his hand to fixing his own plumbing. It's becoming that easy.

Some skills become archaic and other skills become simplified. Real skills, unlike heritage skills, are routinely simplified to make employing people with them less expensive. IT skills are a case in point. FE college lecturers are an ageing workforce, and they can probably remember that introduction courses to computing used to involve a bit of programming, and even the simplest programming language, such as BBC Basic, involved a little knowledge of mathematics.

Now these courses seem to involve little more than "skills", such as the hand-eye co-ordination involved in scrolling down or double-clicking a mouse. Just how long these can be presented as cutting-edge IT skills depends on the successful exaggeration of their nature and importance and over-elaboration of their accreditation.

Most of the "skills gaps" identified and the skills demanded by employers and politicians do not relate to real skills. The easy proof of this is the well-known "fact" that there are some seven million adults in Britain who lack basic skills and are keeping themselves out of the job market or not getting better-paid employment.

Professor Alison Wolf and others have shown that these figures are exaggerations, and the economist Phil Mullan has shown that where basic skills and even degree-level education increases, economies do not improve and may even go into decline.

There appears to be no connection between a country having basic skills and economic success, but a dynamic economy can afford to educate young people.

If we suspect that these figures serve to distract attention from employers' inability to provide dynamic jobs and politicians' to deliver a dynamic economy, we may well be right. Even the Government's own analyses of skills shortages, published last May, shows that the notion of what constitutes a skill is now far from clear.

Worse than this, there are serious equivocations that the panic about "craft" skills merely serve to conceal. They are so bad that we may wonder to what extent real skills are being taught in FE.

The most common equivocation is between qualifications and skills. I can remember an old motor mechanic in what were then rightly called technical colleges complaining about his students with their NVQ, "I wouldn't bloody well let them near my car". He had a point. Much of what goes on in order to gain a certificate is not about skill acquisition. It's largely about paperwork or personal development.

This leads to the second confusion between skills and the development of personal qualities, such as the "ability to co-operate" or to "work in a team". These have now become much more central with a renewed emphasis on the customer-oriented skills needed for work in the service sector. This "emotional" or "aesthetic labour" is what's behind the "Have a nice day!"

approach we associate with McDonald's. There is nothing wrong with being pleasant, but it's not a real skill.

The third equivocation is between skills and education. Employers are probably quite rightly seeing that a good education is the best thing their employees can have. But having an education is not the same as becoming "skilled"; rather it is having knowledge of several subjects and having developed a critical mind.

The fourth and most demeaning equivocation is the one relating to skills and everyday abilities and knowledge. Many FE colleges will soon be bursting at the seams with a never-ending need to supply people with "parenting" skills and qualifications.

Perhaps we will one day see a panic about the lack of parenting skills when no one has a right to reproduce without a level 2 qualification? No, I'm not suggesting this as a crime reduction strategy, Mr Clarke. These and other "skills" are things that everyone can pick up in daily life, and it is much better to talk to your parents and friends with children rather than enrol on a course.

Society, of course, needs skills, but we are getting confused about what they are. When I teased a newly-qualified young doctor by asking whether she had learned any skills, she was unhesitating in her reply. She said she had learned "communication skills".

When the bedside manner is the first thing that comes to mind rather than diagnostic ability, we should be very worried about where our skill craziness is leading us.

Dennis Hayes is head of post-compulsory education at Canterbury Christ Church university college

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