Flow of Ideas

The Recruitment Process and Labour Power



Glenn Rikowski, Division of Humanities & Modern Languages, Epping Forest College, Loughton, Essex, 25th July 1990


“With the keen eye of an expert, … [the capitalist] … has selected the means of production and the kind of labour power best suited to his particular trade …” (Marx, 1867, p.179).


Introduction

Research on the recruitment process has burgeoned in the last twenty years. Riding on the back of the crisis of youth unemployment and the rise of government sponsored training schemes for the young unemployed, studies of youth recruitment were particularly to the fore from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s. Despite an increasing supply of interesting, detailed and empirically rich work in this field, theoretical work on the recruitment process has hardly begun. The literature on the recruitment process contains classification systems and frameworks of attributes sought in applicants in recruitment [1], typologies of employers’ recruitment strategies, models of ‘best practice’ for personnel managers and recruiters [2] and descriptive frameworks such as labour segmentation analysis [3]. These strands within the literature remain unconvincing and inadequate when set against the following fundamental questions: What is the nature of the recruitment process? What is the significance of the recruitment process in contemporary capitalism? What are employers essentially assessing, testing and evaluating in relation to job applicants? [4].

Failure to systematically address questions such as these cannot be fully explained by the fact that many of the empirical studies on recruitment in the 1970s and 1980s were sponsored by government departments, charities, foundations, trusts and pressure groups demanding policy-oriented data. The substantial secondary literature and commentary ardently eschews them too. The basic social scientific question regarding recruitment (Why is it important to study the recruitment process in capitalism?) – is studiously avoided in the secondary literature

The current lack of theoretical sophistication and development in work on the recruitment process is best illustrated through the fate of two books by Stephen Wood and his colleagues. When Wood’s (1982) The Degradation of Work? appeared it was heavily reviewed and oft quoted and referred to by labour process analysts and researchers. However, Windolf and Wood’s (1988a) Recruitment and Selection in the Labour Market has not to date made a similar impact in relation to work on the recruitment process [5]. This differential response has nothing to do with the merits of the two books but has plenty to do with theoretical underdevelopment in work on the recruitment process. When Wood (1982) appeared there was already a range of theoretical concepts, debates and perspectives on the labour process stretching back to Braverman (1974) and beyond to Marx within which this work could be situated. There was not a similar state of affairs in relation to the recruitment process when Windolf and Wood (1988a) was published. Thus, the failure to forge penetrative and illuminative concepts and theories in relation to the recruitment process has resulted in an inability to adequately discuss, appropriate and evaluate new significant, provocative and substantial contributions to the field.

This paper aims to make a start on remedying this situation. It addresses the questions outlined above through an analysis and refinement of the concept of labour power and with reference to empirical work on recruitment undertaken by myself and others, notably Cuming (1983). Additionally, it builds on the work of Cressey and MacInnes (1980) insofar as it draws on their work on aspects of labour through delineating aspects of labour power. It transposes the form of their labour process analysis onto the labour market. The following section addresses the nature and definition of the recruitment process prior to an examination of youth recruitment studies.


2. The Recruitment Process

The concept of ‘recruitment process’ melted into discussion and studies on recruitment during the 1980s and by the late 1980s it was used as a standard reference point within the recruitment literature. During the explosion of studies, commentaries and debates on the labour process in the early 1980s the concept of ‘process’ migrated into discourses on related issues. Thus, Frith (1980b) referred to the ‘schooling process’ whilst theorising on relations between schooling and the labour process, and Lovejoy, Bedale and Halford (1980) couched their discussion of the relationship between the labour process and training in the construction industry around the concept of the ‘training process’.

Without resorting to etymology, it can be reasonably stated that the concept of the ‘recruitment process’ was a child of the early eighties and played a significant role in Jenkins’ (1982) study of working class youth in Belfast. By the late 1980s, the concept had attained the status of a standard sociological reference point, and in Windolf and Wood (1988b), Hohn (1988) and Risk (1987) it was a concept that had ‘finally arrived’ Risk is particularly interesting as he provides a definition of the recruitment process. He argues that recruitment:

“… can be viewed as a social process, prior to selection, involving recruitment methods which catalyse the coming together of young people and recruiters” (p.297).

On this characterisation, the recruitment process brings employers and applicants together; then selection takes place and applicants are assessed. Oxenham (1984) also notes a similar distinction between recruitment and selection. However, this is an artificial distinction which blurs the point that, in specifying and using particular recruitment methods (in Risk’s terms), the employer may also select. For example, recruitment through informal networks (workers’ and employers’ relations and friends) may involve selection along racial criteria if all the workers are white. More generally, it discriminates against those outside the informal network. It is indirect selection. The approach taken here cuts through this unhelpful distinction. The recruitment process involves the following: recruitment criteria, methods and channels.

The criteria of recruitment are very broad; they are the sum of all the underlying principles involved in judging and differentiating between applicants in recruitment. Thus, ‘ability to work with others’ may function as an organising principle for an employer which differentiates between applicants whilst simultaneously incorporating a qualitative aspect. It is not just that some applicants can and others cannot ‘work with others’, but whether candidate ‘X’ is better or worse at working with others than candidate ‘Y’.

Recruitment methods are here defined as the means, ways and procedures through which applicants are assessed and the attributes of applicants specified by the recruitment criteria are measured and gauged. Recruitment methods typically point to selection interviews, tests, school reports, reactions to a tour of the premises and so on – which the recruiter uses to assess applicants in view of the recruitment criteria [6]. As informal and as unstructured as some selection interviews appear to be (typically in small organisations without professional personnel and training staff) the interview can nevertheless be viewed as a recruitment method.

Thirdly, borrowing from Wood (1988) and Windolf and Wood (1988b), there are what they call ‘recruitment channels’ (the use of the careers service, informal networks, advertising and so on), the processes which bring recruiters and applicants together – in effect Risk’s recruitment methods. The recruitment process covers all three elements – criteria, methods and channels – and not just the second as Risk (1987) has it. Wood’s (1988) distinction between channels and methods is a major step forward in the analysis of the recruitment process and it get over the problem of viewing selection as something other than recruitment.

Finally, the recruitment process as characterised above is employer-dominated; it revolves around employer initiatives and strategies. Much of the recruitment process literature takes this for granted. This is reasonable as the social power (Purdy, 1988) of the recruiter is greater relative to the applicant’s. However, the recruitment process can also be viewed from an applicant perspective on all three elements outlined above, though little work has been done on the first two to date [7].

The following section takes a very brief detour into youth (and especially school leaver) recruitment studies. Sociologists and social researchers tend to talk about the recruitment process when in fact the recruitment of young and adult workers should be approached differently due to qualitative changes in the life-cycle of the labourer. The research of Blackburn and Mann (1979) underscores this point. Employers in Peterborough, recruiting for unskilled and semi-skilled manufacturing jobs, looked to the life situation of adult applicants in terms of whether they were married, had kids and had a stable work background – factors which were largely irrelevant in relation to youth labour and particularly school leavers. Adult workers have a ‘track record’ whereas school leavers have at most ‘dummy runs’ (part-time jobs, holiday and Saturday jobs, paper rounds). This is why for school leavers the recruitment process poses greater problems for the employer; the evidence that young people can and will perform in certain work roles is less solid. Adult applicants are more likely to have demonstrated they can do all, most or some of the aspects of the job at stake. They have a ‘track record’ regarding work discipline too.

Youth and school leaver recruitment throws some of the issues discussed in later sections into sharper relief precisely because the recruitment of young people is an inherently riskier business for the recruiter. However, this paper addresses the nature of the recruitment process in general in terms of the rather abstract distinctions and concepts developed in sections 9-10, though (for reasons which cannot be expanded on here) the application, operationalisation and utilisation of these concepts and distinctions will show variation in relation to the life-cycle of the labourer [8].


3. Youth and School Leaver Recruitment Studies: A Brief Encounter

The dominance of work attitudes in studies of youth recruitment is a striking phenomenon but a surprisingly neglected one in terms of commentary and explanation. Study after study has pointed to work attitudes being the most important category of attributes sought by employers for youth jobs.

The Manpower Services Commission (1978) study found that 81% of employers surveyed said that ‘a willingness to work/attitude to work’ was the most important attribute sought in applicants for youth jobs. In Finn and Markall’s (1981a and 1981b) study of Salford, 70% said ‘willingness/right attitude’ was the most important characteristic in a potential recruit to skilled manual work. The figure for semi-skilled work was 83%. Overall, willingness to work was the most important characteristic sought. Williams’s (1981) study of 300 employers in England and Wales concluded that employers believed that ‘willingness to work hard’ and ‘willingness to learn’ were the most important attributes in the recruitment of young people. Ashton and Maguire’s (1980) study of Leicester, St. Albans and Sunderland youth labour markets found work attitudes to be the most important attributes sought in young recruits. They noted that:

“The overwhelming concern was over the young person’s attitude to work, mentioned by 77 out of 101 firms interviewed” (p.152).

Hunt and Small’s (1981) study pf the Lanarkshire and Border areas of South East Scotland found that employers rated personal characteristics above all else. Finally, Cuming (1983) found that work attitudes was the most important class of attributes sought in three of the eight industrial groups he surveyed in Leicestershire. Overall, work attitudes was the most important class of attributes in Cuming’s study. In general, these studies showed that work attitudes was the dominant class of attributes sought in applicants in recruitment.

This paper does not aim to explain the dominance of work attitudes in findings from studies in youth recruitment [9]. Here, the point that work attitudes is the most important class of recruitment criteria in youth and school leaver recruitment studies is demonstrated as it highlights facets of later arguments and the pertinence of concepts developed. The following section briefly examines Cuming’s (1983) classification of recruitment criteria as it is referred to on many occasions throughout the paper, and it played an important role in my own recruitment research.


4. Cuming’s Classification of Recruitment Criteria

In his study of employers in Leicestershire, Cuming asked the following general question: ‘What do you look for in an applicant at interview?’ (1983, p.82). Cuming’s employers referred to 91 different attributes and he was faced with a problem of categorising the attributes sought by employers. His approach was instructive. He justifiably noted that: ‘The analysis and classification of such responses is lengthy and tends to be subjective’ (p.42). However, argued Cuming:

“For analytical purposes it is obviously necessary to reduce the list … to more manageable proportions” (p.71).

He classified the attributes sought by employers into the following eight groups: personality traits; social attitudes; work attitudes; learned skills; general abilities; qualifications; physical abilities and circumstantial elements (which also included unclassifiable attributes). Cuming did not give conceptual definitions of each of the categories. In his Appendix 8 he gave lists of the attributes constituting each category. Observation of these indicates what Cuming and his associates had in mind (see Appendix 1).

On personality traits, Cuming included items of a person’s character such as ‘extrovert’ or ‘patient’. These traits referred to types of social behaviour which were perceived by the employers as manifesting ‘extrovertness’ and so on. Work attitudes referred to ways of thinking that had direct relevance to working for the employer concerned, such as: ‘efficient’ or ‘able to accept boring work’. These work attitudes centred on wanting to work under conditions controlled by the employer. Social attitudes were more general attitudes relating to the work situation as a whole, such as ‘responsible’ and ‘polite’. Learned skills were certain competences learnt at school or elsewhere deemed relevant to production, such as ‘able to write’, and ‘good telephone manner’. They were not just ‘academic’ skills. General abilities referred to perceived ‘natural’ abilities, essential parts of the person: ‘intelligence’ and ‘has common sense’ were typical. Qualifications included attributes like ‘able to pass company selection test’ and ‘has good references/reports/school record’, as well as references to formal qualifications. Physical abilities were straightforward. Finally, Cuming’s circumstantial elements included items like ‘has smart appearance’ and ‘does not live far away’. The emphasis was on certain circumstances or modes of being that the individual applicants were expected to be in or take on at the point of recruitment.

Cuming noted the difficulty involved in placing some attributes in one of the eight categories. To resolve this, he got together the members of his project team who initially undertook the classification individually and then differences were ‘resolved mutually’. Where agreement could not be reached attributes were placed in the circumstantial elements (other) category. Later sections of this paper build on and refine Cuming’s approach through an analysis of labour power. The following section briefly outlines my own research on the recruitment process carried out in the early 1980s.


5. The Midtown Engineering Employers’ Study

During 1980/81 I undertook a study of the criteria, methods and channels of recruitment utilised by 107 engineering firms in a town in the Midlands, to be known here as ‘Midtown’. The research focussed on the recruitment of craft and technician apprentices. Data was gathered through tape-recorded interviews wit ‘the person(s) responsible for recruiting apprentices in the firm’ [10]. This study will be referred to as the Midtown Engineering Employers’ Study (MEES).

The MEES employers were asked what they especially ‘looked for’ in an applicant for engineering apprenticeships. Altogether, 85 attributes were mentioned by the 107 employers. Fifty-two of these were mentioned more than once, and 18 attributes were mentioned five or more times. In total, there were 396 different references to the 85 attributes. In addition, fifty firms having both craft and technician training schemes were asked to note any differences in what they ‘looked for’ as between craft and technician applicants.

Although I drew heavily on Cuming’s (1983) classification of attributes there were certain differences between us. A number of attributes referred to by MEES employers were not in Cuming’s lists. These attributes were assigned to the various categories by myself. Another difference between the MEES classification and Cuming’s was that the work attitudes category was broken down into two: general and specific work attitudes. The former related broadly to Cuming’s original work attitudes. The latter referred to work attitudes relating to the engineering industry or specific jobs or trades within engineering and aspects of these; such as apprenticeship, study at technical college, or skilled status. A further difference was that in Cuming’s categorisation circumstantial elements was split into: appearance, social and leisure activities and circumstantial elements (other). In the MEES classification, appearance was very important for craft recruitment, hence it was included separately, and social and leisure activities was particularly important for technicians and also categorised separately.


6. The ‘Needs of Industry’ as Labour Power Needs

The MEES research was motivated from a concern for a critical analysis of the rhetoric of ‘the needs of industry’ regarding the recruitment of young workers. The recruitment process, along with the careers service, and (increasingly) Government sponsored schemes for the young unemployed were key aspects of the articulation between education and work in Britain in the 1980s. All three were viewed as key institutional links between school and work, but the recruitment process was taken to be the most crucial in terms of employers defining their ‘needs’.

Recruitment is the articulation between education and work where employers’ needs enter through the operationalisation of recruitment criteria. In the recruitment process for school leavers, the great clearing house for youth labour, employers may not only assess and make judgements on the youth coming forward as applicants but they might also report back, either to their own employers’ organisations or to the local press, any problems in recruiting young people (either in terms of quantity or quality of applicants). Employers’ organisation may make representations to the local education authority, appeal to Headteachers, teachers and Government to remedy the situation or expose the ‘scandal of illiterate school leavers’ in the local press. All this could be done to try to get schools to change so as to more adequately meets employers’ requirements. In Midtown, all this and more was effected by local engineering employers. Midtown engineering employers used the recruitment of young people as a quality control exercise on the outputs of the schools.

In Britain in the 1970s and early 1980s there was an apparent non-correspondence between the needs of employers (the qualities required in young recruits) and the personality traits, learned skills and work attitudes developed in young people through schooling. Employers claimed they were getting second-rate goods from schools [11], and vociferous employers and representatives of employers’ organisations pinpointed this as a central cause of the rise in youth unemployment in the 1970s (Frith, 1980a). The problem in the employers’ critique, according to a number of commentators and researchers (Brown, 1987a, 1987b; Central Policy Review Staff, 1980; Frith, 1979; Hall, 1984) was that employers were often unclear when they delineated their requirements for youth labour. The key point was that if employers could or would not define their needs adequately then on Bowles and Gintis’s (1976) analysis, non-correspondence would be expected. Certainly, the whole chain of translating employers’ requirement into educational programmes rested on an initial coherent statement of needs. Employers had apparently everything to gain by asserting their demands on schooling in coherent terms; if employers were muddled in their requirements regarding school leavers then it was no surprise that schools failed to meet or even understand them.

It seemed that in order to research these issues I needed to encounter employers in a situation where the broadest and most general enumeration of their needs was operative. The recruitment process was this optimal social situation. Whilst recruiting young people, employers were forced to think, to some extent, about what they were looking for in young people. Wider considerations – training, further education, the nature of the labour process, the state of the labour market, the office and shopfloor cultures and ascriptive elements (age, sex and race) were also possibilities for consideration whilst recruiting. By focusing on criteria of recruitment a comprehensive catalogue of employers’ needs regarding youth labour could be ascertained. The MEES was set around this problematic.

Post-MEES, the nature of employers’ needs regarding young workers became clearer. What kind of needs are they? Employers have all kinds of ‘needs’: to keep wages to a minimum, low interest rates, a favourable exchange rate, might be some. When they talk about their needs or demands in relation to education and school leavers they invariably refer to their labour power needs. The language of the ‘needs of industry’ and employers’ needs reduces largely to a specification of employers’ labour power needs. This specification proceeds through an elaboration of the attributes of labour power required for roles in the labour process, which in total make for efficient performance in the labour process. Arguments and commentary on the ‘needs of industry’ in relation to education and school leavers is ultimately about labour power needs and the requisite attributes of labour power – competences, skills, attitudes, personality traits, physical qualities and abilities – which constitute the capacity to labour for various types of labour power.

This can be observed directly when employers expand on their ‘needs’ themselves. They do not say that they are defining the attributes of the labour power they require when talking about their needs; they do not operate within a Marxist framework! However, what they say amounts to the same thing. For example, Ferguson and McWilliam (1922) put forward the demands of industry on education in the following way:

“He [the industrialist: GR] would look for increased adaptability, vision, the development of a sense of responsibility, accuracy, dexterity of hand and brain, and the provision of certain antidotes against the repression of initiative” (p.26) [12].

This elaboration of the attributes sought in school leavers is basically about attributes of labour power – the capacity to labour in the labour process. The MEES showed that employers elaborate what they are looking for in applicants for engineering apprenticeship largely, but not exclusively, in terms of labour power needs [13].

Secondly, within the literature, the debate about the needs of industry and employers’ needs takes place firstly in terms of labour power needs and the attributes of labour power. How schools and other institutions figure in meeting labour power needs is another central theme. Few make this explicit. Frith (1978b and 1980b) is an exception. He argues that in terms of employers’ needs, their demands on school leavers: ‘The dominant demand is for generalised, semi-skilled labour power’ (1978b, p.50 – my emphasis). However, he does not expand on this point. On the other hand, Finn (1987) talks in terms of employers’ ‘educational needs’; this confuses the issue. The labour process does not require ‘education’. Employers do not need education in the abstract; what they require is labour power which incorporates certain abilities and attributes involving competences learnt through schooling, training and other institutions. Sarup (1982) includes all the necessary insights without putting them together. He argues that: ‘Schooling is basically to do with the production of the commodity labour power’ (p.28) and defines employers’ needs in terms of attitudes, skills and competences which workers possess (Sarup, 1982, pp.30-31, p.42 and p.74) without making the connection – that employers’ needs are basically labour power needs as characterised in his work.

Thirdly, on the few occasions that writers have devised frameworks for the analysis of employers’ needs, they do it in terms of labour power needs without making this explicit. Although those that have devised such frameworks do not consciously set them within the context of labour power needs (for example: Musgrave, 1967; Landes, 1977; and Oxenham, 1984) nevertheless, these frameworks have labour power needs at their heart.


7. Recruitment and the Assessment of Labour Power

Having noted that employers’ needs are basically labour power needs in relation to school leavers and young workers we are now in a position to summarise the importance of the study of the recruitment process for social scientific research from a Marxist perspective. The study of the recruitment process is important for Marxists as it illustrates and illuminates the ways in which employers view, assess and differentiate between potential labour powers. Labour power only becomes an actuality when exercised and materialised within the labour process. In recruitment, employers are forced into considering (to varying degrees and using more or less sophisticated recruitment methods) the extent to which individual labour power as presented in and through the person will attain concrete form through actual labour, both in a quantitative and qualitative sense.

What recruiters actually assess are labour power attributes as opposed to ‘skills’ in conventional approaches. Indeed, one of the benefits of the labour power approach adopted here is that it becomes possible to by-pass or to clarify some of the seemingly intractable problems arising from the concept of ‘skill’. Many commentators and researchers have noted the difficulties in defining and operationalising the notion of ‘skill’. These difficulties centre around firstly, whether the focus is on the task or the person who has skill (or both), secondly, the relation between skill, knowledge and task performance, thirdly, the question of ‘socially constructed skill’ where sections of workers (typically males) lay claim to supposed expertise as a strategy for either exclusion or the maintenance or enhancement of pay differentials, and finally, making sense of all the paraphernalia concerning the ‘skills vocabulary’ (generic skills, core skills, transferable skills and so on) [14]. However, an approach centring on labour power does not solve all the conceptual problems (and some old problems arise in new virulent forms), but it clears some ground and is ultimately more useful. But what precisely are labour power attributes?


8. Criteria, Labour Power Attributes and Attributes Sought in Applicants

“The term ‘qualification’ or ‘skill’ covers so many characteristics of the applicant that it becomes vague, ambiguous and almost useless for an analysis of the recruitment process” (Hohn, 1988, p.83).

The criteria of recruitment, the standards according to which youth are assessed, selected and accepted for employment are not just attributes sought within applicants. A glance at Appendix 1 shows this to be the case. Some of the circumstantial elements, ‘acceptable background’ and ‘parental interest’ for example, appear to be attributes that do not reside within the applicant’s person at all. They are not part of her/his being as a potential labourer in the same way that, say, all of the work attitudes are.

At this point a distinction between the criteria of recruitment (which include all the attributes in Appendix 1 and other ‘hidden’ criteria not included there, such as gender and race), attributes sought in applicants at the point of recruitment, and labour power attributes, would seem useful. The criteria of recruitment are all factors which employers take into account and the standards they use (their organising principles for differentiating between applicants) which determine which people are recruited. Attributes sought in applicants at the point of recruitment derive from the immediate conceptions of the agents of production; in the MEES case the apprentice recruiters, about what they directly look for in the applicant’s person. They form a class of the criteria of recruitment. Labour power attributes are based on the social significance of the dominant attributes sought at the point of recruitment, and this significance lies in the fact that most formally started attributes, in essence, are organically related to the labour process. Labour power attributes pertain to skills, qualities and competences which are relevant to the performance of labour in the labour process. To summarise: not all recruitment criteria are essential constituents or aspects of the applicant (they include extra-personal factors such as where the applicant lives). Those criteria which are intimately related to the person of the applicant are the attributes sought in applicants, and labour power attributes are a class of the latter which are related to the labour process. The concept of ‘criteria of recruitment’ as used here is inclusive and concrete whilst at the other pole the concept of ‘labour power attributes’ is a key sub-category of the recruitment criteria and an altogether more abstract notion. Ideally, all three concepts require further elaboration, but for the purposes of this paper only the concept of labour power attributes needs extended enlargement.

Labour power is the capacity to labour. This capacity is constituted by myriad qualities, competences, skills and physical and mental capabilities. Humans have all kinds of qualities, competences, skills and physical and mental capabilities – in short, attributes. What determines which of these become labour power attributes?

There is no clear demarcation within human beings between the labour power attributes and other attributes of the person. Thus, Brown’s (1987a) comment that ‘… it is the personality package that must be sold in the market place’ (p.125) takes on added significance in that the capitalist takes on the whole ‘personality package’ but is ultimately interested in only some of the contents. This difference between the person as a set of interrelated attributes and qualities and labour power attributes as distinguishable from but part of the person is fundamental to the way in which surplus labour-time is created and the surplus product appropriated. It is crucial to understanding capitalist exploitation as Marx (1867) shows. Certain attributes of the person only become attributes of labour power under the definite social conditions of the capitalist labour process. In sum, labour power attributes are the competences, abilities, physical and other qualities relevant to the performance of labour in the labour process. There are three dimensions here.

First, there are attributes of the person which become actualised within the labour process itself. They are utilised in production. This has two elements: those attributes relating to the task, the immediate job itself; and those relating to the labour process as a whole – the division of labour, the forms of worker co-operation and management control, internal recruitment and retraining systems [15].

Secondly, there are the attributes of labour power that capital and its agents deliberately attempt to socially produce – the attributes of labour power incorporated in labour power, and developed to varying levels of quality through the social production of labour power. These relate especially to the practical education and training elements in the social production of labour power. They are regulated by the attributes perceived to be relevant to the performance of labour in the labour process. There may be a gulf between this second and the first consideration; labour power may be over- or under-produced in relation to the range of attributes relevant to the utilisation of labour power in production [16].

Thirdly, labour power attributes can be specified, defined and assessed by recruiters of labour power; the subjective dimension is even more in evidence here. Nevertheless, the specifications and definitions of the attributes sought in applicants for jobs are regulated, to varying degrees, by the specific job in question and the employer’s perception of the skills involved, and the wider aspects of the labour process referred to in the first set of considerations outlined above. The relevant attributes here flow from the labour process, rather than being strictly determined by it, as they depend on the recruiter of the labour power’s judgement of what these relevant attributes are. Wood (1988) found that recruiters do not look for personality traits per se, but the personality traits they believe are linked to production.

There is room for difference between the specification of attributes by the recruiter and the attributes actually utilised in production. Such difference is to be expected. Wood (1986) found a marked reluctance of employers amongst the personnel managers he studied to use job descriptions in recruitment. They tended to ‘carry knowledge of jobs in their heads’ (p.106) [17]. Approximation was in order. Labour power attributes are assessed as attributes within applicants for jobs, as attributes already socially produced, and as those which appear to be lacking and hence requiring social production. The quality of the specified attributes is also assessed. Recruiters do not think in terms of labour power attributes, but concretely in terms of the sort of person they want and what they look for in applicants. Attributes sought in recruitment reflect these concerns. Yet in defining and assessing attributes sought in youth in recruitment, employers are involved, to varying degrees, in the specification and assessment of labour power attributes.

Labour power attributes are firstly then the itemised constituents of labour power. From the recruitment perspective, they have a contingent relationship with the labour process because, although they are regulated by it, conditioned by it, they ultimately rest on the subjective assessment of the capitalist. Contradictions within the attributes of labour power, arising from the very nature of labour power, rule out ideal and absolute definitions of the required attributes. There can be no ideal labour power process, ideal labour power or labourers. Stating what attributes of labour power are required involves bringing in aspects of labour power that are in contradiction, and this point will be demonstrated in section 10.

This last point hinges on a further distinction; that between labour power attributes and what can be called ‘aspects of labour power’ – the essential features and characteristics of labour power in general. The contradictions within the latter are fundamental; they provide the substrata within which the labour power attributes exist, are produced, develop and change and are assessed in recruitment. Capitalists and managers have to grapple with these contradictions. For capitalists, there are only better or worse combinations of labour power attributes to be socially produced within the total labour power available, depending partly on management control systems, forms of the division of labour and co-operation in the labour process, the technology etc. – and all this is in the face of unacknowledged contradictions within labour power, the origins of which clearly remain a mystery.

Labour power attributes are not coterminous with attributes sought in applicants in recruitment, much less recruitment criteria in general. There is variation in the extent to which the attributes sought at the point of recruitment are essentially labour power attributes. This is to be expected; recruiters of youth labour do not look for labour power attributes as such. To ask employers what labour power attributes they look for would be as inappropriate as asking them how much surplus value they produced last week. Capitalists (and their agents) do not know precisely the nature of the entity they are assessing in recruitment. The next section examines labour power in general before going on to describing determinant features of the fundamental aspects of labour power referred to above.


9. Labour Power

The significance of the recruitment process is that it can tell us about labour power. However, an analysis of labour power can also illustrate certain features of the recruitment process - particularly the tensions between qualitative/quantitative and subjective/collective aspects of recruitment criteria. This section and the following one examine labour power with a view to exposing these tensions.


9.1 Marx and Labour Power

For Marx, labour power (the capacity to labour) 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” (1867, p.164).

This is what the capitalist buys when s/he lays out her/his variable capital in the form of wages. However, labour power only becomes a reality (rather than a mere capacity to labour) by its exercise in the labour process, when labour power is transformed into actual labour and becomes ‘…living, value creating labour power…’ (Marx, 1865a, p.29); for ‘…it sets itself in action only by working’ (Marx, 1867, p.167).

Moore (1988) has argued that Marx’s concept of labour power is a transhistorical one as ‘…obviously it is abstract and universal’ (p.68). According to Moore, Marx then goes on to ‘…provide it with a concrete form specific to the capitalist mode of production’ (Ibid.). However, as Nicolaus (1973) demonstrates, Marx developed the concept of labour power in order to grasp the specific form of exploitation in capitalism. Sayer (1979) argues that one of the distinguishing features of capitalism is that labour power is a commodity. Marx was not interested in abstract and universal definitions in Capital (1867) but phenomena specific to the capitalist mode of production.

In disagreeing with Moore (1988) it could be maintained that the generality of Marx’s definition of labour power derives from the fact that it is framed at the level of capital in general. It does not refer to labour power of a particular branch of industry or fraction of capital. Thus, when it is concretised in relation to particular capitals, then more can be said about the precise nature of the mental and physical capabilities involved.

What is clear is that labour power is a commodity, ‘…neither more nor less than sugar’ (Marx, 1847a, p.152) though Marx over-exaggerated in Wage Labour and Capital (1847a) to make the general point [18]. Like all commodities it has use value and exchange value; to this extent it is like sugar. However, it is a peculiar commodity differing from sugar in key respects. First, it does not strictly conform to Marx’s characterisation of the commodity as:

“…in the first place, an object outside us, a thing that by its properties satisfies human wants of some sort or other” (1867, p.43).

From the point of view of the labourer, her/his labour power resides within her/him as a capacity. For the capitalist it is an object outside her/himself. Unlike sugar, aspects of it (mental capacities) are unobservable.

Secondly, it is:

“…a commodity, whose use value possesses the peculiar property of being a source of value, whose actual consumption, therefore, is itself an embodiment of labour, and consequently, a creation of value” (Marx, 1867, p.164).

It is not only the source of value but has the capacity to create more value ‘…than it has itself’ (Marx, 1867, p.188): surplus value, and ‘This is the special service that the capitalist expects from labour power’ (Ibid.). Thirdly, it differs from sugar in that it is the subjective factor of the labour process; unlike sugar, it is a commodity incorporating consciousness, intrinsically and inherently, and through its consumption in the labour process, which involves ‘…labour power expressing itself purposively: the subjective condition of labour’ (Marx, 1866, p.980), its purposive activity is vital. We will return to this point in section 10.

9.2 Labour Power – Inclusion of Attitudes and Personality Traits

Marx’s characterisation of labour power referred to earlier was open-ended, general and broad. This was reasonable as the mental and physical attributes required for different forms of labour power would vary, depending on the roles to be performed in the labour process. The concern here is with mental capacities, and what might be included. The capacity to do certain calculations, to read certain words, to understand aspects of science might be readily admitted. However, the inclusion of certain attitudes, personality and character traits is more contentious. Whether work attitudes can be viewed as labour power attributes to the same extent and in the same way as the ability to add and subtract is not a question that can be glossed over as it touches on the relation between the person and her/his labour power.

Over the last thirty years in Britain, and especially over the last fifteen years, the production of attributes and personality traits as attributes within labour power has taken a new turn. It has become more pronounced with special institutions and organisations being set up to vigorously pursue this end. The managers of these new organisations do not say they are producing attributes of ‘labour power’, but what they do amounts to this. Since the late 1950s character and attitude development have gained an insidious hold in the social production of labour power, a hold which justifies seeing this as a qualitatively new phase. The social production of labour power has taken on a far more clearly definable, organised and expanded form in terms of the development of attitudes and personality traits. Here we need only outline some pertinent developments.

From the ending of National Service in 1958, managements in some of the ‘enlightened’ large British companies (for example, Cadbury, and ICI) divined a need to train the character of young recruits in order to approximate the effect of the former National Service (especially in terms of work discipline, loyalty, commitment to the organisation). From the early 1960s there appeared the rise of organised, professionally-run ‘character training schemes’; the pages of Personnel Management (the Institute of Personnel Management journal) and Industrial Society (journal of the Industrial Society) over the 1958-72 period attest to the existence of a veritable ‘Character Training Craze’. A concern with the character of young recruits to industry was prevalent in the pages of these journals in the inter-War period (Fee, 1920; F.E.F, 1921; Schofield, 1923; and Marsh, 1925 – are just a few examples), but apart from a fascination with getting young workers involved in the Scouts and Girl Guides there was little reference to systematic character training. This was despite the fact that character training was well to the fore in Government schemes for unemployed youth in the late 1920s and 1930s. Rees and Rees (1982) and Horne (1986) have shown how Juvenile Unemployment and Instruction Centres included aspects of character training. There was some such training in residential camps and ‘reconditioning camps’ with physical training, games and swimming and handiwork which aimed to build up ‘character’ as well as physical strength under the Juvenile Transference Schemes (Rees and Rees, 1982, pp.23-25). The character training schemes for youth in work in the 1960s shared certain elements with these early inter-War Government schemes. These schemes often incorporated residential weekends and even whole weeks for young workers, where ‘…physical challenge, adventure, service to the community and comradeship’ (Reay, 1963, p.80) were to the fore. Some schemes included young people going abroad, or going on Outward Bound courses and other types of ‘adventure training’. As P.H. Reay of Cadbury’s put it, the aim of the Cadbury course was to:

“…provide in microcosm, over a much shorter period … [than that of National Service: GR]… some of the broadening and enlightening side effects of conscription” (Ibid.).

Private companies such as Adventure Unlimited (Ward, 1965) and the Lindley Lodge Centre (Marsh, 1973) were set up to cater for the character training craze. Large firms were increasingly setting up their own courses supervised by training and personnel staff. The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme became a common feature of these schemes and the Industrial Society was itself involved in ‘character training’ through setting up Youth Forums providing social activities and local youth pressure groups.

As the British economy started to falter in the late 1960s and early 1970s the Industrial Society called for state or local authority aid for these schemes as firms started to cut back on their commitments to character training. The Industrial Society argued that the state could promote ‘attitude training’ through the Industrial Training Boards that had been set up under the 1964 Industrial Training Act (Industrial Society, 1971). The bubble burst in another sense. In 1972, a critical article appeared in Personnel Management which put an end to the promotion of character training schemes in that journal. White and Roberts (1972) challenged the basic assumptions of character training schemes through a study of 77 young people who had been on them and concluded that they failed to develop the character of young people in the ways their protagonists proclaimed. They compared the orientations of these 77 to their work before and after attending character training courses. In particular, they examined whether these young people were putting ‘…more effort into and deriving greater pleasure from their working lives …’ (White and Roberts, 1972, p.32) after attending the course. The answer was either that the course made little difference or it had marginal negative effects (from the employers’ viewpoint); indeed, it made participants more restless, less likely to put effort into their jobs and more likely to want to change their jobs or leave the firm altogether. Significantly, it did not instil a more co-operative attitude towards their supervisors; relations with supervisors deteriorated after attending the course. There was an aggressively spirited defence of character training schemes in Industrial Society in 1973 (by Marsh, 1973) and these schemes were not ostracised from this journal. However, this attack on character training had come too late, as, from 1964 and the Industrial Training Act, large firms had started to incorporate character training in various forms into their off-the-job training schemes for apprentices.

Character training and attitude training was brought in on a far larger scale in the late 1970s in the UK through the Youth Opportunities Programme (YOP) and in the 1980s through the Youth Training Scheme (YTS). Character and attitude training were embedded in these government training schemes for the young unemployed. I have no data on the numbers of young people who went on character training courses in the private sector, but it seemed largely confined to young unskilled and semi-skilled people in ‘enlightened’ large firms in the early 1960s, spreading to apprenticeship training after the 1964 Industrial Training Act. The arguments of the Industrial Society that attitude training should be given state funding became a reality through the Manpower Services Commission (MSC) schemes for unemployed youth from the late 1970s. The emphasis on making unemployed young people better potential employees through social and life skills training, trainee assessment and residential courses along the lines of the old character training schemes (involving the Duke of Edinburgh Award, Outward Bound, City Challenge and other schemes used by the old character training regime) and generally attempting to reconcile youth to low paid work has been documented in a number of works (Rees and Atkinson, 1982; Dale, 1985; Benn and Fairley, 1986; Brown and Ashton, 1987; and Finn, 1987). What these writers missed is that these developments were part of a new phase in the social production of labour power in British capitalism where far greater emphasis and resources went into the development of personality traits and work attitudes desired by employers. Finn (1987), for example, misses the point when he argues that the YTS is a poor substitute for proper training and apprenticeships. Its point is that it concentrates more squarely on certain aspects of the social production of what Marx called ‘mental capacities’; the production of work attitudes and personality traits as labour power attributes. The Education Group (1981) showed a clearer grasp of events when they argued that MSC schemes for young people were about ‘moulding the subjectivity’ of unemployed school leavers (p.235). The early character training schemes and the Government inter-War schemes for unemployed youth provided models for developments in youth training of the late 1970s and the 1980s. Furthermore, in schools there has been a renewed emphasis on instilling specific work attitudes in terms of encouraging young people to want to work in industry and commerce. Through the Technical and Vocational Education Initiative (TVEI) programme, the City Technology Colleges, Certificate of Pre-vocational Education (CPVE), Low Attaining Pupil Project (LAPP), work experience courses and revamped careers education the emphasis is increasingly on young people having favourable work attitudes towards industry and commerce – to ‘esteem’ industry (Bates, 1984).

Finally, as section 2 noted, studies of employers’ labour power needs at the point of recruitment have generally placed work attitudes to the fore. Employers look for certain work attitudes in young recruits above everything else. A reading of the Institute of Personnel Management and Industrial Society journals from the First World War shows that employers have always put work attitudes and personality traits well to the fore in defining the sort of youth recruits they were looking for and the sort of young people the schools ought to be producing.

The empirical evidence suggests that the social production of work attitudes (but also certain social attitudes and personality traits) as attributes of labour power can be included in the constitution of labour power and figure as labour power needs in contemporary British capitalism. Agents of capital themselves see this point as they socially produce labour power and as they define their labour power needs and in this they are in advance of some Marxist writers who concentrate on the ‘educational needs’ of capital (as in Finn, 1987). Thus, in the concept of labour power advanced here, ‘mental capacities’ rightly include attitudes and personality traits as well as learned skills and general intelligence. The fact that these attitudes and personality traits are partly, even mainly, the result of processes deriving from class subcultures, family life and other social spheres alters nothing. It merely demonstrates that this aspect of the social production of labour power is still relatively underdeveloped and not organised in a clear and definite form.

Labour power (under partial control by the person as labourer, and with a conscious, subjective element), is essentially fluid, changeable and will-dependent. Given the subjective aspect of labour power, then the attempt to produce certain ‘mental capacities’ (in particular work and social attitudes and personality traits) in a particular form rests on a fundamental contradiction in the social production of labour power; the attempt to objectify subjectivity itself, to fix aspect of consciousness into definite forms as though they were things. This contradiction is never resolved as the agents of capital involved in the social production of labour power can never have determinate control over the mental processes of the potential labourer. Mental capacities and qualities can never be fixed for all time; they are inherently unstable and subject to alteration and interpretation and re-interpretation by their possessor. Moreover, the mental capacities that the agents of capital wish to produce within the consciousness of the potential labourer depend on the assent of the latter as the learning of these mental capacities ensues. Insofar as this assent is not given then real class struggle is involved, a struggle over the control of the consciousness of potential labour power itself. It is all the more pernicious as it manifests itself as the epitome of individualisation. However, this struggle is tempered by certain considerations.

Firstly, as Marx notes, the labourer is, in principle: “…ready and willing to accept every possible variation in his labour power and activity which promises higher rewards …” (1866, p.1034). By the same token, it is in the interests of the potential labourer (and the labourer through re-training) to participate in and assent to the development of their mental capacities as this will allow them greater choice and freedom in the labour market, with the possibility of greater financial rewards, and also in a tight labour market increase employment chances. Therefore, from the perspective of the individual potential worker it may make sense to actively and positively participate in the development and production of certain mental capacities within themselves. As Finn (1987) has noted, workers do not have a ‘real interest’ in education and training; but this over-simplifies. Marx notes the real active participation of potential wage labourers in the production of their labour power takes a terrible twist in certain circumstances, viewed from the perspective of the class of wage labourers as a whole. In Wages (1847b), Marx points out that from the point of view of capital as a whole, if the labour power of workers was developed to the point where all of them could take any job, then this would lead to a general fall in wages as there would be no skill shortages.

Secondly, a number of analysts have pointed to the educational exchange (Willis, 1977; Sarup, 1982; Brown, 1987a) where pupils are promised jobs, good reports, good grades etc. if they work hard in class. There are incentives for them to participate in the social production of their own labour power. These incentives can break down. In the case of Willis (1977), it was held by ‘the lads’ that the educational exchange was based on a false premise; you could get jobs without participating positively in the classroom. In Brown (1987a) it is pointed out that the ‘ordinary kids’ in his study were only likely to accept the educational exchange as long as ‘decent’ working class jobs for youth were available. Thus, gaining the assent of potential labourers in terms of their active and positive participation in the production of their own labour power is always conditional on whether potential labourers perceive it in their interests to give this assent. The social production of labour power takes place through struggle, incorporation and compromise and it ultimately revolves around the formation of aspects of the consciousness of potential labour power.

Thirdly, labourers can subvert the production of labour power (Education Group, 1981) through diverting the mental capacities developed towards undermining capitalism, through reading socialist literature and propaganda or critiquing aspects of bourgeois ideology in the media and elsewhere etc. Insofar as the literacy skills are developed within the consciousness of potential labourers there is no guarantee that these skills will be used in the service of capital, or only within the labour process. Insofar as mental capacities are produced they are never fixed, stable, objectified entities within the consciousness of potential workers. In recent years, the contradiction of the objectification of subjectivity has reached new heights. Agents of capital have taken new steps in the attempt to produce certain attitudes (especially work attitudes) and personality traits within potential and actual labour power.


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