Flow of Ideas

The Long Moan of History: Employers on School-Leavers

Glenn Rikowski, London, 28th August 2006

Labour power is the capacity to labour, the potential to work. For Marx, labour power is:

“… the aggregate of those mental and physical capabilities existing in a human being, which he exercises whenever he produces a use-value of any description” (1867a, p.164).

Thus, on this characterisation, labour power has real social existence. When labour power is viewed as a market phenomenon, prior to its sale to a capitalist, it is therefore only a potential power to labour. Yet for Marx, labour power is something more than just a potential power when it is transformed into actual labour (when producing use-values) in the labour process. As Marx notes:

“Labour-power, however, becomes a reality only by its exercise; it sets itself in action only by working” (1867, p167 – my emphasis).

Furthermore, as I have argued previously (Rikowski, 2000), the quality of labour power (everything else being equal) is crucial for capital in terms of higher productivity – thereby re-dividing the working day into necessary labour (which is represented by the wage) and surplus labour (which is not represented by the wage and produces surplus-value) in favour of the latter. Enhanced labour power quality increases production speeds and quality, harnesses workers to the cause of innovation and makes life easier for managements (and hence cuts managements costs) in a myriad of ways. This general, abstract but real social drive is experienced by individual capitals and the human representatives of capital (capitalists and managers) concretely in terms of raising productivity, quality improvement and hence sales and profits. Finally, the social drive to increase the quality of labour power has no logical resting point; it is an infinite social drive, though practically (in terms of actual labour power production) it cannot be expressed as such.

In the light of this, it is no surprise the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) criticised school-leavers last week as being insufficiently prepared for the world of work. This latest employers’ critique of the labour power of youth in the UK was based on research undertaken amongst 140 firms, and was sponsored by the Department for Education and Skills (CBI, 2006a). The resulting Report, Working on the Three R: Employers’ Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English focused on the perceived inadequate maths and English skills of the nation’s school leavers. Thus, after James Callaghan’s Ruskin College Speech of 1976, the resulting Great Debate on Education, the 1988 Education Reform Act, ushering in the National Curriculum, national testing, SATs, league tables, and then Ofsted, together with New Labour’s focus on standards early on after 1997 and then the introduction of the Literacy and Numeracy Hours – and school-leavers’ reading, writing and maths are still inadequate for employers! The CBI Report (2006a) could have easily have been written in the 1970s or 1980s – though employer criticism of school-leavers declined for a while after the 1988 Education Reform Act.

For the CBI, the stakes are high. As Richard Lambert noted in the Foreword to Working on the Three Rs:

“As international competition intensifies, it is more important than ever that the UK workforce should not continue to lag behind in terms of basic skills in reading, writing, communicating and making practical use of maths” (Lambert, 2006).

Thus: for Lambert, schools are failing to provide the young employees the nation needs to compete in the international economic arena. A CBI press release noted that one in three employers surveyed were sending staff for remedial maths and English tuition (CBI, 2006b, p.1). Last Thursday, when the GCSE results came out the CBI congratulated the students but also “warned that too many were still not achieving the minimum standards in maths and English” (CBI, 2006c, p.1).

The press picked the story up with relish. AOL Lifestyle (2006) framed the story in terms of ‘grunting’ teenagers unable to communicate effectively. Alexandra Frean (2006) from The Times focused on data from the case studies provided by the Report: e.g. trainee caterers not knowing how to divide a pie into eight equal parts. Rebecca Smithers (2006) in The Guardian noted that the CBI wanted more transparency on new modules on “functional skills” (to be piloted from September) in terms of the percentage marks on these (to be introduced in 2008) to be handed over to employers. David Willetts, Conservative Shadow Education Secretary, bemoaned the degree of GCSE coursework. The Schools Minister, Jim Knight went along with the CBI critique, noting apologetically that:

“Every single young person must have a good grasp of the basics. We have done more than any government to make this a reality. We are changing the way we measure performance in these basic skills and toughening up the English and maths GCSEs to ensure that young people masters the three Rs. In the future employers will have a guarantee of the quality of the school leavers they are taking on” (in Smithers, 2006).

What was interesting about Jon Boone’s (2006) report in the Financial Times was that he emphasised another employers’ survey undertaken by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development and KPMG which threw up data indicating employers were more interested in ‘soft skills’; work attitudes and personality traits – which typically come out as most significant in research on employers’ needs regarding youth labour (see Rikowski, 2000). Hence, the employers in this report “challenged” the findings of the CBI (2006a) Report, noted Boone. Employers know not what they want (Rikowski, 2006).

It should be noted that employers have long been dissatisfied with the quality of school-leavers. In the British context, analysis of management journals illustrates employer dissatisfaction with school-leavers and young people going back at least to the First World War. In the early 1980s, I examined the journals of the Industrial Society and the Institute of Personnel Management (which went through various name changes) going back to the 1920s. In both of these journals there was a ‘long moan of history’ from employers (Rikowski, 2000, p.25) regarding the quality of youth as workers. Yet given that the social drive to enhance the quality of labour power is infinite, employers will never, and can never be satisfied with the labour power quality of school-leavers and young workers. The Long Moan of History is set to continue into the future, unto the death of capitalist society.


AOL Lifestyle (2006) Employers bemoan ‘grunting’ school leavers, online at: http://lifestyle.aol.co.uk/article.adp?id=20060821045909990001

Boone, J. (2006) Employers stress need for ‘soft skills’, Financial Times, 22nd August, p.2.

CBI (2006a) Working on the Three RS: Employers’ Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English, Confederation of British Industry, August, London: CBI. Online at: http://www.cbi.org.uk/pdf/functionalskills0906.pdf

CBI (2006b) Government must show more urgency in raising literacy and numeracy through GCSEs – CBI, Confederation of British Industry, News Release, 21st August. Online at: http://www.cbi.org.uk

CBI (2006c) Congratulations to GCSE students, but govt fails to make the grade in English and Maths – CBI, Confederation of British Industry, News Release, 23rd August. Online at: http://www.cbi.org.uk

Frean, A. (2006) School leavers lack even basic skills warns CBI, The Times, 21st August, p.4. Lambert, R. (2006) Foreword to Working on the Three RS: Employers’ Priorities for Functional Skills in Maths and English, Confederation of British Industry, August, London: CBI. Online at: http://www.cbi.org.uk/pdf/functionalskills0906.pdf

Marx, K. (1867) [1977] Capital: a critique of political economy – volume 1, London: Lawrence & Wishart.

Rikowski, G. (2000) Why Employers Can't Ever Get What They Want. In fact, they can't even get what they need, a paper presented at the School of PCET Staff/Student Seminar, University of Greenwich, Queen Anne's Palace, 30 Park Row, Greenwich, London, 27 March. Available online at The Flow of Ideas web site: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Why%20Employers%20Can't%20Ever%20Get%20What%20They%20Want

Smithers, R. (2006) Third of employers forced to teach basic maths and English, The Guardian, 21st August, p.4.

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