Deskilling and Overskilling

For anyone who works for a living, the biggest threat to his livelihood is that his job will be made easier. For if it is made easier, someone else might be able to do it.

On the other hand, making jobs easier is the main effect of technological progress. It is the process that has given us the wealth that we now live in.

When is it then a bad thing for a job to be made easier -- to be deskilled?

First, when it doesn't work. That is, in my experience, the most visible form of bad management -- an attempt to codify a job with a set of procedures, in the hope that the particular skills of the worker can be replaced by the written procedures. If it worked it would be socially beneficial, but all too often it just means that a the job is just as difficult as it was, but there is then an added difficulty of pretending to follow the procedures.

The other time is when it would be better to make workers more skilled. After all, workers becoming more skilled is equivalent overall to jobs becoming less demanding. However, the incentives are different, as the benefits of deskilling a job stay with the employer, whereas the benefits of improving a worker move with the worker.

Historically, I think efficiency has come much more from deskilling jobs than from improving workers, but it would be wrong to ignore the other process.

Of course if a job isn't done quite as well by relatively unskilled workers, that doesn't necessarily make it bad. A handmade shoe might be better than a mass-produced shoe, but the general replacement of handmade shoes with mass-produced shoes is surely a huge improvement in efficiency.

In the market there is a constant pressure to improve efficiency by using fewer or cheaper workers. At the same time, workers want to become more skilled, and to use their skills. The task of improving efficiency and getting it right is difficult, and seems to me to depend mostly on the managers actually in touch with the workers, not the top of the hierarchy.

Back in the 1980s, the big thing was deskilling those middle managers. In a static situation, that would make sense: the workers know how to do their jobs, the senior management to strategy, and the middle managers are a waste of space. But to actually produce change, skilled middle managers are needed.

In the public sector, the process does not operate the same way. There is an unending trend towards workers becoming more skilled, and more expensive, and not the steady pressure to find ways to do the job with slightly less skilled workers. Instead, we see skilled public-sector workers like doctors, teachers and police officers becoming steadily more trained and scarcer, until senior management (the government) is forced to try to fill gaps by dragging a whole new layer of worker in to do the job which the original workers are now too skilled and too expensive to do. That is the story of the Nurse Practitioner, railed against so steadily by Dr Crippen. It is the story of the Police CSO and the Learning Assistant to the class of 40 pupils.

The case of teachers is particularly striking, because it is necessarily a skilled job, and because the system needs so many teachers. As of 2003 the country had over 400,000 teachers (full time equivalent). As more pupils stay in education to 18, the demand will rise. There are certainly worries about the standard of some of the teachers. But we aren't going to get better teachers than we've already got - not 400,000 of them. Any improvement in schools can only possibly come by making it easier for actually existing teachers to teach effectively -- by, whereever possible, deskilling their jobs. The solutions that actually come down from government, however, always seem to involve demanding extra skills from teachers. If you can teach well, but you're not good at writing formal lesson plans, you're now not a good teacher. If you can teach well, but you can't impose discipline on a gang of rowdy teenagers, you're now not a good teacher. If you teach well, but you refuse to pay lipservice to the many political nostrums handed down from on high, you're now not a good teacher.

If we had a surplus of good teachers, we could get away with all this, but demanding more skills from a profession that numbers in the hundreds of thousands can't be done. If you employ 400 people, you might be able to get better workers to do a more demanding job. If you employ 400,000 that's out of the question.

As I said, in the private sector attempts at deskilling jobs often fail. The only way we will see any improvement in these public sectors, without a large risk of catastrophe as possible improvements fail, is to allow variety. And that, of course, is the one thing this government more than any other has stamped out.

This discussion has been slightly aimless, but it's a huge question -- the driving force of human progress -- and there's a great deal more that needs to be said. It was brought to mind by Theodore Dalrymple's piece on the medical student problem, and by chris dillow's comments on it.