Successive Governments in the UK have sought to increase in the supply of qualifications, education and formal training as a means of addressing the productivity gaps identified in the economy (HM Treasury 2000). The logic being that an increase in these elements will lead to an increase in skills and in turn productivity (Haskell & Hawkes 2003; Lynch & Black 1995; Bartel 1994). However, the key factor is that although the studies may be able to show correlation, this does not “mean that the relationship is causal ie that it is the absence of skills that produce the productivity gap” (Tamkin et al 2004: 16). So it is possible to show a correlation, but one must guard against drawing simplistic causal connections because much of the research on such links suffers from a range of methodological and conceptual problems, such as inconsistent and questionable measures of inputs and outputs.
Perhaps the most robust example of such research stems from the National Institute for Economic and Social Research (NIESR). Undertaking both case study and survey-based research, these projects have to some extent broken free of the short-term focus of studies elsewhere; aiming where possible to try and delve into the ‘how’ and ‘why’ behind links between skills and productivity (performance) levels. Utilising education, qualifications and training (formal) as proxies for skill, the studies have, to varying degrees, shown that increased skills have enabled organisations to operate with fewer defects; more technologically advanced production systems; multi-skilled workforces allowing for greater production variety/flexibility; fewer machinery breakdowns/downtime; increased innovation and greater levels of automation (Jarvis et al 2002; Mason et al 1999; Prais 1995; Clarke & Herman 2004; Daly et al 1985; Steedman & Wagner 1987; Carr 1992; Mason et al 1994; O’Mahoney 1999; Steedman & Wagner 1989; Prais & Wagner 1988). The longitudinal focus and ‘matched plant’ approach of these studies has allowed for a greater comparative picture to unfold over time; one which does suggest a persuasive argument pointing toward a correlation between the shortage of skills and reduced productivity levels.
Beyond the above research, studies elsewhere are worryingly narrow in focus, concentrating solely on analysis of sectors that lend themselves to comparison. As such, they frequently provide a picture of production based shop-floor skill requirements, but are less successful at showing the link between skills and performance more broadly; “firm performance and national productivity are rather more than shop-floor practices writ large, and we cannot simply extrapolate from one to arrive at the others” (Grugulis & Stoyanova 2011: 521). Equally, to ensure reliability and validity, the studies operate at a high level of aggregation; the fall out of which is that smaller ‘deviant’ data that does not sit within the parameters of statistical validity is often overlooked. As a consequence the findings of such studies do not necessarily always hold at the level of every individual and every firm.
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Clarke, L. and Hermann, G. (2004) ‘The institutionalisation of skill in Britain and Germany: examples from the construction sector’. In: C. Warhurst, I. Grugulis and E. Keep (eds.) The Skills That Matter, pp.128–47. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
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