Her study focuses on changes in the skill levels of print workers and the ensuing power of their unions to enact social closure. Printers originally worked with hot metal to compose the print, this required physicality and the ability to endure heat. However, the advent of new technology required print workers to work with computers and VDU terminals and to learn typing skills. Although some of their past skills were useful in the sense of they knew how the print was constructed and they had knowledge of how to construct a newspaper – this new work only used a small percentage of their past craft skills.
Cockburn argues that for most the changes in new technology has brought increased earnings and a reduction in working hours and less pressure. As the work is more generalised and easier the men feel that they are loosing their status. These feelings are partly related to the way printers felt a sense of self-respect which includes an element of masculinity in these sentiments. The men are sensitive to the gender skills of typing and the fact they have lost the ability to differentiate themselves, not just from unskilled men but also from women.
Cockburn notes how these craftsmen were caught in a double-bind. The nature of their work and its association with metal was undeniably male and the new VDU skills was associated with women’s work, thus they either see themselves as being deskilled or they must accept that many women are as skilled as men. Cockburn notes that much of the bitterness the men feel is explained by these contradictions.
These developments destabilised the previous synchronisation of skill in the man, job and setting. What the workers were left with was skill in the person but these skills were no longer relevant for skill in the job, whilst the political definition of skill was also seriously reduced because of the diminished power of the trade union. Thus for these men the skill and craft of their job has been removed and therefore they are deskilled.
THE ROLE OF MANAGEMENT IN SOCIALLY CONSTRUCTING SKILLS
Although much of the debate concerning the social construction of skills rest with the ability of men and in particular their representatives to mobilise their interests it also has to be noted that management have also been active as well as complicit in the social construction of skill. Example – Collinson and Knights’s (1986) research into the insurance industry indicated the importance of examining management perceptions in the creation and reproduction of sex-typed work. As well as reinforcing the sexual division of labour through their employment practices, management are also involved in under-valuing women’s work – Why?
Research into Royal Mail (Jenkins et al 2002) illustrated the way management and unions have acted together to sustain a sex-typed workplace. However, changes in the organisation have challenged these practices and there is a tension between workers and managers – men have lost their political and material resources to sustain the workplace as a male domain. In these cases, ideological resources were used to demarcate the territory as male.
It is apparent that there are many ways in which we can analyse skill. It is argued here that as well as the person and the job we need to take into account the ways in which skills are socially constructed – taking account of political, ideological and material processes by which some groups have enacted social closure. It is important to recognise the diversity in analysing skills because of the crucial important skill has in defining the status of the job and in role definitions of skill has in perpetuating the sexual division of labour.