Flow of Ideas
Higher Education and Confused Employer Syndrome

Glenn Rikowski, London, 7th February 2006

The Long Moan of History Transformed

In an article I wrote some years ago (Rikowski, 2001) I noted that employers have always moaned about the quality of young people coming out of schools. Employers have always been critical of the skills, attitudes and capabilities of school leavers. They still are. For employers, schools have never developed the labour-power attributes they desire to the quality that they desire them. This constitutes the 'long moan of history' by employers concerning youth as labourers in the capitalist labour process.

Over the last fifteen years, some of the venom employers have historically spat on school leavers and schools has been spent on graduates. With the development of a mass higher education system in the UK the 'long moan of history' has changed its target. Higher education students now feel the heat.

Unfit Forms of Labour-Power?

Alexandra Blair's (2006) article in The Times today illustrates this change of emphasis by employers. Apparently, it is the nation's largest companies that are groaning loudest about the 'shoddy' forms of labour-power produced by universities:

"Britain's biggest companies gave warning last night that, despite a record number of graduates entering the job market this year, many will lack the basic skills needed for employment" (p.1).


"Almost half of businesses said that they did not expect to receive "sufficient applicatons from graduates with the correct skills" (p.1).

But this notion of graduates having the ‘correct skills’ is suspect.

Higher Confused Employer Syndrome

Research has shown that when employers are asked what their needs are regarding schools leavers they give confused and contradictory answers. In my article of 2001, I called this 'confused employer syndrome'. Following a brief survey of national, historical and international research on what the 'needs of industry' were regarding school leavers and youth as labourers (in Rikowski, 2001, pp.29-30), I concluded:

"[T]hat the ‘needs of industry’ in relation to youth labour have always, and possibly everywhere, been problematic for employers - in perpetual disharmomy with qualities and capabilities of actually existing young people. Such an endemic dysfunctionality puts the onus on employers to offer clear statements of their 'needs' regarding young workers in order that schools and training institutions can attempt to produce young people with the personal qualities, skills and competencies that employers require. Yet it is at this point that the house of cards collapses. Various studies and analyses ... have indicated that employers' statements regarding their needs in relation to youth labour are either ambiguous, or confused or downright contradictory" (pp.30-31).

I wager that research into employers' labour-power needs at the graduate level of employment would find the same. In my 2001 article and an article that appeared a year later (Rikowski, 2002) I explained why this must be so. Employers are necessarily confused; they cannot help themselves.

They Know Not What They Want

The labour-power aspects in all categories of worker sought in the recruitment process in capitalist society are in contradiction. These contradictions relate to the ways in which labour-power (the capacity to labour) is transformed into actual labour in the capitalist labour process. In my 2002 article I pinpoint these labour-power aspects:

*The value-aspect of labour-power (its quantitative moment)

*The use-value aspect of labour-power (its qualitative moment)

*The exchange-value aspect (its equalising moment - what makes labour-powers comparable)

*The collective aspect of labour-power (its reference to the collaboration and co-operation of many labour-powers)

*The subjective aspect of labour-power (its will-determined element, that emphasises the labourer's willingness to utilise labour-power attributes within the labour process)

*The concrete aspect of labour-power (its specificity in terms of the labour-power attributes required in specific labour processes)

(Rikowski, 2002, pp.187-193)

I show how these labour-power aspects are in contradiction. Thus, when employers come to specify what labour-power attributes (the specific, itemised skills, attitudes etc. they need) then they necessarily think through these contradictions. Hence: they are necessarily confused.

But this is only one layer of confusion.

Confusion Doubled

In my 2001 article (Rikowski, 2001), I show that when employers speak about their labour-power needs from the positions of specific categories of capital then confusion is also generated. I identified a number of categories of capital:

*Capital in general (the labour-power attributes required to work in any capitalist labour process)

*The national capital

*Fractions of capital (manufacturing, finance, services, and landed capital)

*Sectors of capital (particular industries and welfare state forms)

*Individual capitals.

Neither are these exhaustive. The categories can be broken down further. Thus when employers specify their labour-power needs, where does their 'voice' come from?

Thus, when Blair (2006) says that graduates don't have the 'correct skills' according to top employers it is hard to see what this could mean without reference to the framework above. But there is another, third layer of confusion. Employers' demands are necessarily infinite; they cannot be specified without anomaly.

Infinite Confusion

A third layer of confusion regarding what employers want from youth (or any labour) rests on the notion that the social drives of capital are infinite. Thus, regarding labour-power needs, there is no resting place regarding quality of labour power (Rikowski, 2000). All other things being equal, employers with the best quality labour-powers will create more value and surplus-value than others in the same field of activity. But the 'best' has no fixed limit; labour-power can, in theory, always be 'better' in some ways.

Thus, schools and universities can never satisfy the labour-power needs of employers. This simple point is nearly always lost sight of in the kinds of debate highlighted by Blair (2006). In terms of the media debate on youth labour, perhaps it always will be thus as uncovering the real issues turns the spotlight onto the social constitution of capitalist society: an unsettling move.

Specific Confusions

We can now unravel some of the points made in the Blair (2006) article. Her first bullet point is that there is:

"Too much time spent on degrees and not enough joining clubs and societies, where students might work in teams" (p.1).

But this just shows that employers are focusing on the collective aspect of labour power, here. That is, how the labour-power of one person relates to that of others for effective production (of whatever commodity). This is what employers do; they skip around, from aspect to aspect, now emphasising this one, and then that one - in the search for a comprehensiveness that defies coherence, as such coherence is logically and practically impossible.

Of course, these 'top' employers are looking for academic high flyers. Rationally, some students concentrate on degree studies to attempt to prove to prospective employers that they are indeed such folk.

If employers really wanted those with the capacity and experience to work in teams then should focus on those more likely to have these labour-power attributes: the many students not perceived as academic whizzes who have to work for money in order to get through higher education. These students have labour-power attributes pertinent to the collective aspect of labour power. But they might not have those relevant to the value- and use-value aspects (speed and quality) developed to the extent that these 'top' employers expect: and that would never do!

Blair (2006) pinpoints a second 'top' employer moan regarding graduates:

"Not enough experience of giving presentations in tutorials, leaving new graduates unable to communicate ideas in the work place" (p.1). Again, if these employers had wished to lower their expectations on the value- and use-value aspects of labour-power then they might have been more satisfied in terms of the collective aspect of labour-power if they had had taken on graduates who had 'worked their way' through university. Such graduates would be more likely to have developed their labour-power in this respect as compared with those focusing purely on academic studies. Perhaps you are starting to see the problem these 'top' employers have?

Yet it is the third bullet point from Blair (2006) that really brings home the confusion reigning in employers' minds. She points towards the:

"Poor spelling, grammar and mathematical ability [which] mean that graduates make basic mistakes, write illiterate memos and need constant supervision" (p.1).

Thus: in terms of the value- (speed) and use-value (quality) aspects of labour-power they appear to be lacking too. But this suggests more emphasis on academic work, not less in order to spend more time in paid employment or clubs and societies, or doing assignments that require group work (enhancing the collective aspect).

Helen Bostock, vice-President of JP Morgan, noted that doing summer jobs or voluntary work might help (i.e. with developing the collective aspect of graduate labour-powers). Yet she made it clear that 'soft skills' do not outweigh the value of a degree' (Blair, 2006, p.2). Meanwhile, the high flying, relatively affluent students will set about trying to please the infinitely demanding yet massively and necessarily confused 'top' employers. This story will run and run; to the end of capitalist society!


Blair, A. (2006) Graduates unfit for work, say top firms, The Times, 7th February, pp.1-2: http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,3561-2028167,00.html

Rikowski, G. (2000) Why Employers Can't Ever Get What They Want. In fact, they can't even get what they need. Paper presented at the School of PCET, Staff/Student Seminar, University of Greenwich, London, 27th March, online at: http://www.flowideas.co.uk/?page=articles&sub=Why%20Employers%20Can't%20Ever%20Get%20What%20They%20Want

Rikowski, G. (2001) Education for Industry: A Complex Technicism, Journal of Education and Work, Vol.14 No.1, pp.29-49.

Rikowski, G. (2002) Fuel for the Living Fire: Labour-Power! In: A. Dinerstein & M. Neary (Eds.) The Labour Debate: An Investigation into the Theory and Reality of Capitalist Work, Aldershot: Ashgate.

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