Work and education

‘Do well at school and you’ll get a good job,’ many a parent has told a child and many a teacher has told a teacher. What they mean is that higher levels of knowledge, skill and qualifications are linked to better-paid employment. They are right: level of education is a reliable predictor of adult earning capacity.

In the modern era of mass, institutionalised education, school performs the social role of sifting and sorting people into different kinds of jobs. One aspect of this role is simply functional: ordinary workers need some literacy and numeracy basics to function effectively in the workplace. Sometimes those basics are no more than rudimentary skills. At other times they reflect a set of dispositions inculcated at school: punctuality, a capacity to understand orders and a willingness to comply. Until recently, a relatively small number of workers also needed to have higher-level knowledge and skills, and so received the additional training required for them to be tradespeople or professionals.

More than providing skills for work, schooling’s promise also goes to the heart of the meaning and purpose of modern society. Education is one of the core commitments of an unequal society. Although not everyone will end up with jobs that are equally good, everybody has a chance to do well at school and get a good job – or so the argument runs among people who are convinced that today’s social arrangements are as good as it gets. Roughly speaking, the kind of job you have reflects how well you have done at school, and if you haven’t done well enough at school to get a good job, you have only yourself to blame. On the other hand, many social scientists would argue that chances are not that evenly balanced – not everybody comes from social circumstances that provide access to equally well-resourced education. In this socially critical view, society and education are not so fair at all (Bowles and Gintis 1976). However, whether you want to rationalise or critique an unequal society, the education-to-work nexus is a critical part of the explanation of how society works to distribute resources.

In this chapter, we examine the connections between education and three paradigms of work. The first two are widely known as Fordism and post-Fordism. The third, which we have named ‘productive diversity’, is the subject of our research and development work into education for the workplace (Cope and Kalantzis 1997). It is an optimistic view of the way work may be organised in the near future, based on emerging trends in work organisation today. Productive diversity is a perspective whose practice also is com- promised by the structures of inequality, but nevertheless attempts to move realistically in the direction of a more equitable society.

All three paradigms of work are alive and well today, depending on the sector of the economy in which an enterprise operates, which part of the world the workplace is located or whether the workplace is a traditional industrial setting. Sometimes the different approaches can be found in different places and at different moments within a single, contemporary workplace. At different times and in different places, the earlier Fordist or post-Fordist approaches still seem to make a certain kind of sense, even if at times that sense can be explained in terms of institutional inertia or uneven development. At other times they seem anachronistic or unjust.

In each of the three sections of this chapter, we explore the connections between work and education according to the following dimensions:

  • dimension 1: technology
  • dimension 2: management
  • dimension 3: workers’ education and skills
  • dimension 4: markets and society.