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Skills do not become obsolescent

April 9th, 2010 by Graham Attwell

I wrote a blog post earlier this week abut how much of our present training system is based on a deficit model – of looking at what skills and knowledge we think workers in particular occupation should have, at measuring what skills and knowledge they do have and then providing training to match the gap. I suggested this was an inefficient and reductionist approach, instead suggesting we should build from the skills an knowledge people have now to that which they could have with support for learning.

Today a call for tender dropped into my email box from the European Centre for  Vocational Education and Training (CEDEFOP). The tender is for data collection for skills obsolescence for older workers. And to my mind it illustrates just what we should not be doing. The tender says:

“Parallel and in close connection to its skill demand and skill supply activities, Cedefop is also analysing skill mismatch at various levels. To guide such analysis, five priorities for research have been identified. These priorities are: 1) improve measurement of skills and skill mismatch; 2) examine the persistence of skill mismatch and its impacts; 3) improve understanding of skill mismatch processes, its dynamics and the consequences of skill mismatch; 4) focus on skill mismatch for vulnerable groups on the labour market; and 5) improve data availability and use. The work carried out in the context of this tender and subsequent analysis by Cedefop aims to address aspects present in all research priorities simultaneously.

Attention among policy makers for skill obsolescence as an explanation for mismatch has increased significantly as a result of increasing changes in work and organisations. Cedefop (2009) concluded that from a lifelong learning policy perspective, the question of how and how fast skills become obsolete is crucial. However, this preoccupation has not been endorsed by current research, with most empirical studies dating back to the 1970’s and early 1980’s. Current research on skills obsolescence tends to focus on its impact on wages. Apart from some insights dating back to classical studies among engineers (for an overview, see Cedefop, 2009 and De Grip et al, 2002), little is known about how fast different types of skills become obsolete, how skill obsolescence interacts with training and skill development and how skills obsolescence processes work.”

The idea of matching the skills of individuals and the skills needed in an economy is a futile dream. Skills needs and usage are dynamic and constantly changing. Even more critical is that such approaches ignore the potential of skilled workers to shape production and work processes – and thus to develop innovation. The skills matching approach assumes a pseudo semi scientific, econometric formula for measuring skills. But lets look at the wording again. Much depends on how we interpret skills and I suspect this tender is very much based on a narrow Anglo Saxon understanding of skills and competences. But it is not the skills of the worker (or the worker themselves) who become obsolescent. rather it is that changing work processes and changing forms of production require new skills and knowledge – skills and knowledge that build on past learning. And older workers are often those with the experience to teach others – to be a Significantly Knowledgeable Other to use Vygotsky’s term.

A policy of innovation should be based on using to the full the skills and competences and workers and on developing workplaces to facilitate learning through meaningful work tasks – rather than using tools to measure how obsolescent older workers skills are.

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