Skilled work

Watch an active construction site for a few minutes and you will see some amazing examples of skilled work and deft problem solving. That was true today in Ann Arbor where I happened to see one complicated step in the construction of a new wing of a five-storey building. The problem was this. A fifty-foot girder was lifted by crane to its intended location within the vertical steel frame. Already I was impressed with the skill of the crane operator, who deftly maneuvered the beam into position where two steel workers were waiting on the existing beam. The crane suspended the beam in place and the steel workers bolted the near end to the frame. So far so good. But the far end was to attach to an isolated vertical beam fifty feet away, and I couldn’t picture how that end would be attached. The steel worker answered that question quickly. He scuttled the length of the beam to the isolated vertical while the beam was suspended by the crane cable and the attached end. But now the resistance of the material world intervened — the beam was a little too long to fit. The worker used two crow bars he’d brought with him to lever it into place — no good. It was just half an inch too long given the position of the vertical. So are we stymied? Need to send it back? No. The worker stood up on the beam and started gently rocking the vertical. After two or three oscillations he was able to lever the beam into place, and quickly bolted it down.

It’s not a completely amazing instance of problem solving on the job, but it is impressive nonetheless. Certainly the users’ manual doesn’t have a section on what to do in this circumstance. But given his prior training, experience, and embodied skills, the worker was able to come up with a solution that worked.

Richard Sennett describes this kind of artisanal intelligence in The Craftsman. He describes craftsmanship as “the skill of making things well” (8). Further,

The Craftsman explores these dimensions of skill, commitment, and judgment in a particular way. It focuses on the intimate connection between hand and head. Every good craftsman conducts a dialogue between concrete practices and thinking; this dialogue evolves into sustaining habits, and these habits establish a rhythm between problem solving and problem finding. The relation between hand and head appears in domains seemingly as different as bricklaying, cooking, designing a playground, or playing the cello— but all these practices can misfire or fail to ripen. (9)

A part of the interest of Sennett’s work here is the help it provides in redressing the idea that mental work is professional and cognitive, while manual work is repetitive and rote. Sennett gives many contemporary examples of work that is both head and hand, both cognitive and skilled, both creative and manual. Sennett gives many examples of this kind of artisanal intelligence. Here is one from the construction of a large shopping mall in Atlanta.

The lighting in these aboveground car-houses turned out to be uneven in intensity, dangerous shadows suddenly appearing within the building. Painters had added odd-shaped white strip lines to guide drivers in and out of irregular pools of light, showing signs of improvising rather than following the plan. The craftsmen had done further, deeper thinking about light than the designers. (44-45)

Sennett’s point here is that the implementation of a complex space is not simply the translation of a computer-generated architectural drawing into material form. Rather, it is a process that requires real workers to find solutions to the inevitable fact of gaps and inconsistencies in the plan–in this case, the fact that the lighting didn’t fully illuminate the space, leading to risks for pedestrians and drivers.

A dominant tradition of philosophy identifies our human essence with our ability to think and reason. Descartes represents this line of thought (“cogito ergo sum”). But there is another tradition that places labor and our capacity to transform the material world at the center of the human essence. Hegel represented this line of thought, as did Marx. It is the homo faber tradition — man the creator — and all in all, it seems to do a better job of defining us. Labor and skilled intelligence lie at the core of human capacities. And that is a good thing to remember on May 1, the international day celebrating labor.

How to think about work

Work defines a large portion of life in any society, traditional or modern.  How should we think about the social and economic forces that create “work”? What are the institutions and practices through which individuals use their bodies, brains, skills, and talents to create value within a given set of economic relationships? These questions are just as relevant in consideration of the medieval economy — serfs and freemen, artisans, highwaymen, retainers, soldiers, the odd banker — as they are for the contemporary economy. (It would be very interesting to analyze Marc Bloch’s account of feudalism from the point of view of the kinds of skilled work he identifies in the medieval manorial economy in Feudal Society: Vol 2: Social Classes and Political Organisation.)

So what does the division of labor look like in the contemporary economy? And how is it changing?

The Bureau of Labor Statistics maintains a “Standard Occupational Classification System” encompassing tens of thousands of job types, organized into 23 major groups (link). (My own profession, philosophy professor, falls in category 25-1120 “Arts, Communications, and Humanities Teachers, Postsecondary”.) Here is the table of major groups of occupations:

The International Labour Organisation maintains a different classification system of occupations (link).  This system includes managers, professions, technicians and associate professionals, clerical support workers, service and sales workers, skilled agricultural, forestry, and fishery workers, craft and related trades workers, plant and machine operators and assemblers, elementary occupations, and military workers.

It is interesting and important to observe the trends of change that can be observed in the distribution of tasks across categories of worker over time — the evolution of the division of labor in society. A good beginning would be a table indicating the percentage of the labor force in each category.  It would be very interesting to see the shifting distribution across these categories over the past 75 years — though I can’t easily locate a study that provides this kind of analysis.  Presumably a century-long comparison would demonstrate a major shift in the BLS groups from group 45 (agriculture) to groups 47, 49, and 51, and a later shift to service occupations like groups 31, 35, 37, 41, and 43 in the past thirty years. (The BLS SOC is revised periodically, most recently in 2010, so comparison across time is presumably non-trivial.)

It is evident that there is a generally falling scale of authority, compensation, skill, and prestige across both sets of categories. So the division of labor, as expressed in these classification systems, proceeds from low-skill, low-specialization at the bottom, to high-skill, high-specialization at the top.

So the question of skill and division of labor is not exclusively one of sociological theory; it is a statistical feature of the social order that is amenable to direct empirical research. But the arrangement of the occupations in a society is not solely a question of economic efficiency. It is also directly tied up with the distribution of power and authority in society. Assigning a person the title of “manager” or “director” not only reflects the individual’s skills; it also assigns him or her a measure of power and authority.

(It is mildly interesting to note that there is a whole slice of specialized work in contemporary society that is not included in either classification: extra-legal activities like smuggling, piracy, gambling, organized crime, drug dealing, etc. These activities also have their own specialized division of labor, ranking of skills, and rates of return.)

The talent supply chain

The talent supply chain

I had an interesting discussion with a senior executive of Kelly Services that provided some very striking new perspectives on the world of work. Kelly Services is a global workforce solutions company, providing temporary and medium-term workers with a very wide range of specialized skills (link). One thing that was particularly striking is the fact that Kelly provides advanced technical and scientific expertise to corporations and government agencies as independent contractors. In fact, according to their website they have over 11,000 scientists and engineers available for placement. On any given day they have placed roughly 150,000 workers around the world, and are administering another 100,000 or so who are provided by independent contractors. So Kelly Services has a strong real-world knowledge base about the talent needs of the current global economy.

The most striking part of our conversation is this. Our traditional thinking about a job and a career is badly out of date. We think of the normal work situation as fulltime longterm employment in a specific location and with a salary and benefits. But this situation isn’t even the majority situation anymore. We know that a lot of employers don’t offer benefits, but that isn’t the big news. According to this executive, almost half of workers in the US economy are self employed or part-time or temporary. These workers don’t have benefits usually, and they don’t have job security. What they have is a specific set of talents to sell in a national or global market, and their standard of living depends entirely on the value of this set of talents.

Think of the crowdsourcing system that has gained some visibility recently. Amazon’s Mechanical Turk system is an example (link), and InnoCentive provides an example for problems at a higher level of difficulty (link). Here is how it works. A company has a problem to solve. It formulates a clear and unambiguous description of the problem and posts a prize for the first one or two people who come up with a solution. There are an unknown number of people who are earning their livings through his kind of work.

Or think of this challenging idea. A company like Kelly can reposition itself as a “talent chain management” company. They enter into contract with a large corporation to take on some or all of the company’s talent supply needs, from custodians to junior accountants to research scientists. The company is relieved of the costs of recruitment, human resource management, benefits, and sometimes supervision. The company gets high quality work at the time and place it needs, and Kelly manages the process. (Here is a report from the Wharton School on “Talent on Demand” (link).)

So what are the foreseeable social consequences of these changes in the ways that work and talent are mobilized? Several are quite straightforward. These developments imply a rapid deepening of inequalities in the future between people with good education and training and those without. As governors in many states are saying, high school dropouts won’t find decent jobs in the future because they haven’t cultivated the skills and talents that bring a high rate of return. And as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan says on every possible occasion, all workers need some post-secondary education or training. Simply a willingness to show up and perform repetitive labor won’t support a decent life. 

But this also has consequences beyond income. If more and more work is performed by private contractors and freelance individuals, the elements of the social security net that have traditionally been provided by employers will be gone — retirement contributions, healthcare insurance, longterm disability insurance, etc. All of these would need to be funded by the individual or socially through national insurance plans. Self-funding works for workers at the high end of the salary range; but it doesn’t work for people at the lower end. 

These tendencies are at work already. The growing separation between incomes in the top end of the distribution and the lower quintiles reflects these tendencies; so does the shrinking labor market for “good” manufacturing jobs; and so does the declining percentage of employers who offer health insurance to their workers.

So the conclusions are stark. Encourage all young people to invest in their educational opportunities; make sure that these opportunities are provided for rich and poor alike; but prepare for a world in which there is more and more deprivation for the bottom 60% of society. Progressives will want to address this coming crisis of poverty and deprivation directly by reinforcing the safety net and improving educational opportunities for disadvantaged people, and conservatives seem more willing to ignore or even justify the inequalities that we will see. But one way or another, it’s hard to see where the opportunities for a “middle class” life will come for more than half of society.

(Kelly Services has created an iPad app called Talent Project (link).  The app provides a portal into a collection of research papers and data on the future of work.  There is a mountain of interesting data and research on the talent economy here.)