Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Research: Training volume on the decline in Britain

The British Journal of Industrial Relations recently published an article entitled “The Declining Volume of Workers’ Training in Britain”. Instead of examining the percentage (or “rate”) of workers receiving training (which is the conventional measure), the author’s examine the volume (or “duration”) of training to reveal that that quantity of training workers received fell by about half between 1997 and 2012.

This result is hard to reconcile with the rhetoric about knowledge economies and learning organizations. Basically, the state and employers argue that ongoing worker skill development is necessary to maintain economic competitiveness. Consequently, we should see an increase in the amount of training that workers receive.

Yet, until this study, there has been no published research on the volume or quality of worker training. While the training participation rate remained relatively steady, the best estimate available (based on analyzing multiple surveys) is that average training hours per week per employed person in Britain fell from 1.24 in 1997 to 0.69 in 2009—a 44% drop.

So what explains this change? Age, gender and industry don’t seem to matter too much. It appears to be an actual reduction that sits uneasily with the rhetoric about training. The authors posit four potential explanations:
  1. Employers decreasingly believe training adds value.
  2. Existing skills levels may be sufficient, especially if (1) workers arrive with more skills than in the past and/or (2) the complexity of many jobs is falling.
  3. Training has become vastly more efficient over time, so less volume is necessary
  4. Learning is decreasingly occurring through training.
It is possible that there are multiple explanations for the decline. My own guess is that employers are acting in their interests (i.e., to maximize profitability) and are reducing training expenditures while deskilling jobs as much as possible (so a combination of 1 and 2). This suggests that the knowledge economy and learning organization rhetoric is perhaps more prescription than description.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 24, 2015

Friday Tunes: Atlantic City

This week’s installment is labour themes in popular culture is Bruce Springsteen’s “Atlantic City”. This song was written in about 1981 as workers in the US struggled with an ongoing recession and Atlantic City sought revitalization through the legalization of gambling. These two themes are interwoven throughout the song.

The singer seems headed to Atlantic City to join the mob.
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy
and I'm gonna do a little favor for him
This decision seems to reflect the singer’s assessment that seeking success though traditional career paths is unlikely to work. Whether that is because of the inequities built into the economy or because of the singer’s past choices is a bit unclear,
Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus
This song seems to anticipate the ongoing discussion of the precariat—workers (often young) who are disengaged from employment and training (1) the absence of opportunities leading to (2) a loss of confidence that this path is effective. One potential pathway for them is to engage in alternative economies, including the criminal economy.

Well they blew up the chicken man in Philly last night
now they blew up his house too
Down on the boardwalk they're gettin' ready for a fight
gonna see what them racket boys can do

Now there's trouble busin' in from outta state
and the D.A. can't get no relief
Gonna be a rumble out on the promenade and
the gamblin' commissions hangin' on by the skin of its teeth

Everything dies baby that's a fact
But maybe everything that dies someday comes back
Put your makeup on fix your hair up pretty
and meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Well I got a job and tried to put my money away
But I got debts that no honest man can pay
So I drew what I had from the Central Trust
And I bought us two tickets on that Coast City bus


Now our luck may have died and our love may be cold
but with you forever I'll stay
We're goin' out where the sands turnin' to gold
so put on your stockin's cause the nights gettin' cold
and maybe everything dies that's a fact
but maybe everything that dies someday comes back

Now I been lookin' for a job but it's hard to find
Down here it's just winners and losers and
don't get caught on the wrong side of that line
Well I'm tired of comin' out on the losin' end
So honey last night I met this guy
and I'm gonna do a little favor for him


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Analyzing the return-to-work movement

The journal New Solutions has just published an article entitled “Not Quite a Win–Win: The Corporate Agenda of the Stay at Work/Return to Work Project” (SAW/RTW). This article interrogates the recent interest in returning injured workers to work as quickly as possible by examining why workers don’t SAW/RTW and who really benefits from such prescriptions.

This narrative anchors itself on the notion that there are unnecessarily disabled workers drawing compensation from insurance providers. The author suggests that proponents of SAW/RTW are colonizing the (laudable) idea that workers with disabilities are still capable of work, in order to reduce the costs of injury compensation borne by employers.

The article then goes on to provide some analysis of who is involved in the “grassroots” SAW/RTW movement in the states. Spoiler: Not workers, unions or their attorneys (the latter two groups being deemed impediments to communicating with injured workers about SAW/RTW). Treating physicians also appear to be on the outside, perhaps because their primary interest is in the injured worker getting better, not necessarily returning to work quickly.

Overall, an interesting perspective on what some suggest is a media-friendly retreading of the old malingering-worker school of thought.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 17, 2015

Friday Tunes: All Hell for a Basement

This week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is Big Sugar's All Hell for a Basement. The song title refers to Kipling's description of Medicine Hat's gas fields. The lyrics, though, are about the experience of a worker facing long-term unemployment. He, like so many before him, heads off to Alberta to work in the oil-and-gas industry.

In the song, the worker struggles with his decision to up-root from (I'm told) Newfoundland and move west. I find this lyric particularly compelling but have no rela sense of what it means (thoughts anyone?): "My words are like a rope/That's wrapped around my throat". The struggles of migrant workers is a recurring theme in my summer listening this year. While notions of longing of missing family are hardly novel ground, the sheer number of popular songs on this topic speak to how pervasive this phenomenon is in Canada.

I'm a workin' man
But I ain't worked for a while
Like some old tin can
From the bottom of the pile
From the bottom of the pile

I have lost my way
But I hear a tale
About a heaven in Alberta
Where they've got all hell for a basement

My words are like a rope
That's wrapped around my throat
Wash my mouth with soap
For words unfit to quote



And now I'm free to go
But time cannot remove
The only life I know
Now only time will prove
Yes, only time will prove



-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Research: Injury and safety behaviours among workers aged 15-245

The Journal of Safety Research has recently published an article entitled “Prevalence and demographic differences in microaccidents and safety behaviours among your workers in Canada”. The article examines the incidence the occurrence of no lost time injuries and safety behaviours among a convenience sample of nearly 20,000 Canadian workers, 15- to 25-years-old.

Roughly one third of respondents reported at least one no-time loss injury in the four weeks before answering the survey. While there was no gender difference in the results, workers 15-18 were much more likely to report experiencing injuries.

Workers aged 15-18 also reported less “safety voice” and “safety compliance” and more “safety neglect” than older workers. These results were more pronounced for young males than young females. Overall, fairly alarming statistics.

-- Bob Barnetson

Friday, July 10, 2015

Friday Tunes: Four Strong Winds

This week's installment of labour themes in popular culture is Ian Tyson's 1963 hit Four Strong Winds. The song is predominantly about a failing relationship but its background touches on the long-term pattern of inter-provincial migration to Alberta's oil-and-gas sector.

It is not clear whether the "singer" of the song is being compelled (e.g., because of economic exigency, or a desire for self-actualization) to migrate to Alberta. Certainly the availability of work in Alberta seems to hint at an economic motive. Such migrations (temporary or permanent) often strain or tear personal relationship asunder. This very real impact of migration on individuals and communities is rarely considered in public policy (e.g., proposals to reform employment insurance to require migration).


Four strong winds that blow lonely, Seven seas that run high,
All these things that don't change, Come what may.
But our good times are all gone, And I'm bound for moving on.
I'll look for you if I'm ever back this way.

Think I'll go out to Alberta, Weather's good there in the fall.
Got some friends that I can go to working for,
Still I wish you'd change your mind If I asked you one more time,
But we've been through that a hundred times or more.


If I get there before the snow flies, And if things are going good,
You could meet me if I send you down the fare.
But by then it will be winter, there ain't too much for you to do,
And those wind sure can blow way out there.


-- Bob Barnetson

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

One in five civil servants bullied by bosses

Awhile back, a survey of the federal public service found one in five Canadian civil servants reported workplace harassment in the previous two years, most often from supervisors and co-workers.
The most common types reported were offensive remarks, unfair treatment and being excluded or ignored. Sexual harassment, whether a comment or gesture, was reported by nine per cent of those who felt harassed, and two per cent said they faced “physical violence.
Not surprisingly, most victims did nothing.
About 25 per cent of those who felt harassed took no action at all. About seven per cent filed a grievance or formal complaint. The main reasons cited by those who didn’t were fear of reprisal; they didn’t think it would make a difference; concerns about the complaint process; and thinking the incident wasn’t serious enough.
These Canadian numbers are roughly the same as those found in Australia.

One of the more interesting studies of workplace bullying in "Workplace bullying and the employment relationship: Exploring questions of prevention, control and context". This analytical lens reveals that bullying may well be an effective strategy for turning the capacity to work into actual work and is therefore an endemic feature of employment in capitalist economies.

This approach is profoundly different from the usual psychological approaches to studying bullying by noting the structural factors that incentivize and support bullying. And it may explain the persistence of workplace bullying: it is a management strategy.

-- Bob Barnetson