Flow of Ideas

Revealed Recruitment Criteria Through the Use-value Aspect of Labour-power

Glenn Rikowski
University of Birmingham, School of Education

Second Paper prepared for the ESRC Seminar Series on ‘Apprenticeship in Work and Education’, Nene Research Centre, Nene College of Higher Education, Northampton, 31st May, 1996


This paper examines some data from a study of engineering apprentice recruitment in a Midlands town - ‘Midtown’ - undertaken in the early 1980s through the lens of the use-value aspect of labour-power. A previous paper (Rikowski, 1996b) developed the concept of the use-value of labour-power and it is worth recapping the flow of the argument in that earlier paper prior to moving the analysis on.

The Midtown Engineering Employers Study (MEES) was a study which focused on the recruitment process for engineering apprentices. The aim of the study was to grasp employers’ ‘needs’ - the ‘needs of industry’ - for a specific form of youth labour, on the presumption that such a study would inform us about the nature of such ‘needs’ in general. The recruitment process was viewed as a key site where employers actively and purposively defined their ‘needs’ in relation to labour. It was argued in Rikowski (1996) and elsewhere (Rikowski, 1990a,b, 1996a) that the so-called ‘needs of industry’ in relation to labour represented and referred to labour-power needs. Marx’s concept of labour-power designated the form of this class of employers’ needs. This recognition led to an extensive analysis of labour-power itself. However, Marx’s seminal concept was extended and redefined to include attitudes and personality traits as well as the ‘mental and physical capabilities’ identified as constituents of labour-power by Marx (1865). Recruitment studies showed that employers ‘looked for’ these attitudinal and personality factors above all else in the recruitment process, and hence the concept of labour-power was extended to incorporate such research findings.

The next step in the analysis identified four ‘aspects’ of labour-power. This identification followed upon a prior introductory rendition of ‘aspect analysis’. Basically, aspect analysis involves:

‘... an exploration of the process of ‘seeing’, both in terms of audio-visual fields but also, and more importantly, in terms of interpretative ‘perspectives’’ (Rikowski, 1996b, p.5).

Four labour-power aspects were located: the subjective aspect of labour-power, labour-power in its individual and will-determined moment; the collective aspect of labour-power which is an as ‘... an accumulation of labour powers’ (Marx, 1858, p.585) working in co-operation in forms set by prevailing divisions of labour; the use-value aspect of labour-power, labour-power’s active, creative and qualitative moment; and, finally, the exchange-aspect of labour-power was viewed as the quantitative dimension of labour-power – the capacity of labourers to work at speed, with reference to volume, and passively, repetitively and routinely in relation to the labouring act. These four aspects are in contradiction and tension, which is one reason why employers in capitalism can never have their ‘needs’ met by schools as institutions involved in the social production of labour-power. No education or training can abolish these contradictions; they are inherent within labour-power. Furthermore, the labour-power needs of employers can only be understood on a relative (in terms of quality) and infinite (in terms of quantity and temporal considerations) basis. This brings in a second angle on why the labour-power needs of capital can never be realised in any static and absolute way. These last two points were not fully developed in the previous paper (Rikowski, 1996b) and will not be here either, as they form a branch of argument which would demand a substantial detour from the main thrust of this paper; to explore labour-power attributes through the use-value aspect of labour-power.

Moving towards the concrete, Rikowski’s (1996b) earlier paper pointed to the notion of labour-power attributes. These are the itemised constituents of labour-power as indicated by representatives of capital In the case of the MEES, they were specified first of all in relation to the potential to labour in the labour process, as ‘labour capacity’. At the level of the labour process, they are those elements of personhood which are activated, brought into force and expressed through the act of labour, labour as process. Finally, they are attributes which representatives of capital, in so far as they intentionally attempt to socially produce the person as labour-power through acting upon and shaping aspects of personhood, aim to socially produce. The extent to which the conjunction of the second and third of these processes becomes a social reality is simultaneously the extent to which persons become labour-power, and hence capital.

Not all attributes sought in individuals by representatives of capital in the recruitment process are labour-power attributes. Some are indicators or measures of desired labour-power attributes, such as hobbies and interests being indicators of active and creative individuals. Thus, there are attributes of the person which are not strictly labour-power attributes but which employers value for their predictive and indicative nature. Attributes sought in applicants in recruitment incorporate labour-power attributes and these other indirect indicators of the quality of labour-power attributes.

Finally, in terms of recruitment there criteria of recruitment which are nothing to do with the personhood of the applicant at all. Circumstantial elements such as distance from the workplace being an example. The criteria of recruitment include these factors plus attributes sought in the person of the applicant which may or may not be viewed as labour-power attributes. Appendix 2 of Rikowski (1996b) shows the full range of revealed recruitment criteria from the MEES (as opposed to relatively hidden ones such as gender, race and ethnicity).

Having crafted this series of concepts – from labour-power, to aspects of labour-power through to labour-power attributes, attributes sought in applicants and criteria of recruitment - the previous paper expanded the upon the use-value aspect of labour-power. It is at this point that this second paper takes up the analysis. The aim here is to provide a more grounded exploration of the use-value aspect of labour-power, to explore this concept in relation to MEES data. Along the way certain methodological points are extracted from the discussion. It would be useful, first of all, to reproduce and expand upon the section on the use-value aspect of labour-power from the previous paper.

The Use-value Aspect of Labour-Power

The use-value aspect of labour-power refers to the qualitative dimension of labour-power. There are three considerations here. Firstly, at the level of the labour-power market, labour-power in its use-value aspect, from the standpoint of capital, can be viewed in relation to the relative quality of its attributes. In practical terms, the perceived quality of applicants’ and potential labourers’ labour-powers can be judged and assessed. It is the potentiality; the ‘capacity’ or ability of the labourer to work that is at stake here.

Secondly, at the level of the labour process, the use-value aspect of labour-power refers to the quality of the transformation of the labourer’s powers, forces and qualities into labour in an active mode. This is where the quality, extension, versatility and adaptability, the initiative and the judgmental qualities of the person as labourer come into play. This level relates to the previous one; labour-power when viewed through the market level of analysis relates to labour-power as practical labouring expression in the labour process through a practical assessment of potential labour-powers on behalf of representatives of capital. This assessment of the practical relation of labour-powers as potentiality and actuality depends on a number of considerations; the knowledge recruiters have of the labour process, their ability to translate this knowledge into criteria of recruitment, their methods of judging and assessing applicants for jobs against these criteria, the adequacy of the measures of assessment and many other factors. The MEES indicated wide variations in the extent of knowledge of the labour process, recruitment criteria (even within similar trades within engineering) and methods of recruitment. What is clear from the MEES data which touches on these issues is that schools are faced with the practical difficulties of meeting the specificities of the relation between the two levels - labour-power market (potentiality) and labour process (actuality) – when employers themselves face substantial difficulties in making the connections.

Thirdly, at the level of the unfolding or becoming of labour-power through its further social production, the MEES employers in particular (as it was apprenticeships they were offering, which required further training) had a range of visions of the ways in which young apprentice recruits might, ought and could further develop and enhance the quality of their own labour-powers. This concern with continual development, with the ability to acquire the will, know-how and capacity involved in ‘learning how to learn’ in relation to engineering, was an important theme running through some of the interviews.

When the MEES employers talked about recruiting engineering apprentices they made connections between all three perspectives or levels of analysis (labour-power market, labour process, social production of labour-power). However, before we examine this in detail, it is important to point out towards an analytico-methodological cul-de-sac I was driving down as recently as the early 1990s.

Until recently, I assumed that the way forward for the analysis of labour-power attributes (such as examples from Appendix 2 of Rikowski, 1996b) was to allocate them systematically to the four labour-power aspects. Thus, for example, I attempted to analyse work attitudes as exemplifying the subjective aspect of labour-power. I also argued (again until quite recently) that the reason that recruitment studies showed that work attitudes were the most important group of criteria sought by employers in recruitment was that the subjective aspect of labour-power was in command; that is, it was the most crucial of the four aspects as the will-determining element conditioned whether labourers actually transformed their active forces, powers and capabilities into concrete labour in the labour process. If a one-to-one correspondence could be made between the dominance of the subjective aspect of labour-power and work attitudes as labour-power attributes then it appeared to me that I would then have explained why work attitudes were the most important category of recruitment criteria in recruitment studies; the dominance of work attitudes as recruitment criteria reflected the dominance of the subjective aspect of labour-power which centred upon the activating and energising will of the labourer. Without the will of the labourer being subsumed under capital, and hence becoming capital to some enervating extent, then there would be no transformation of labour-power into labour - whatever the quality of the other labour-power attributes which reflected the three other aspects of labour-power.

However, from the early 1990s I began to doubt the legitimacy of the procedure of allocating labour-power attributes to particular aspects of labour-power in order to build up an explanatory framework for understanding recruitment criteria. Firstly, I found that, in practice it was difficult to make such allocations in many cases. Secondly, and this was largely attained through an intuitive leap, though conditioned by doubts about one-to-one allocation, I could ‘see’ that each labour-power attribute could be perspectivised. Particular labour-power attributes could be viewed through the lens of each of the four aspects of labour-power. Each ‘view’ revealed something different about the labour-power attribute under consideration; its significance for labour-power, the labour process and the social production of labour-power, as well as other phenomena and concrete elements of particular capitals shifted as each of the four lenses through which labour-power could be viewed - subjective, collective, exchange-value and use-value aspects - altered. This realisation led me to question the ‘mapping’ of labour-power attributes onto aspects of labour-power. It was also the kick-start for the aspect analysis (see Rikowski, 1996b) I developed as an alternative to the static and rigid ‘mapping’ of labour-power attributes. All this does not necessarily mean that the subjective aspect of labour-power is not the dominant aspect (this point will not be followed up here) but it does explode the explanation of the dominance of work attitudes I had held up until the early 1990s.

A further analytico-methodological point to note here is that, in focusing on just one aspect of labour-power (the use-value aspect) we are providing a partial analysis of particular labour-power attributes. This point follows from what has been said above. The difficult task is to view labour-power attributes through all four aspects within a unified analysis. Marx (1858) himself was faced with a similar problem when he attempted to analyse money. He found that:

‘The special difficulty in grasping money in its fully developed character as money - a difficulty which political economy attempts to evade by forgetting now one, now another aspect, and by appealing to one aspect when confronted with another - is that a social relation, a definite relation between individuals, here appears as a metal, a stone, as a purely physical, extended thing which can be found, as such, in nature, and which is indistinguishable in form from its natural existence. Gold and silver, in and of themselves are not money. Nature does not produce money, any more than it produces a rate of exchange or a banker’ (p.239 – Grundrisse, Marx, 1958 – GR’s emphases).

Thus, in the analysis of money, various aspects have to be brought together within a unified and comprehensive view. As Marx caustically noted, bourgeois political economy expounds on one aspect whilst ignoring and forgetting the others. Later on, in Capital, Marx attempted to provide a unified account of all the aspects of both money and capital. However, in our analysis here, the use-value of labour-power has been singled out for special attention. This is because in the third part of today’s Seminar presentation I will discuss the special resonance this aspect of labour-power has in terms of the representation of capital within labour.

Furthermore, to develop a unified analysis of the labour-power attributes uncovered by the MEES would involve nothing short of a book. Part of the problem is that it is not simply a matter of applying aspect analysis to a study of labour-power and labour-power attributes within a specific sector of capital and in relation to skilled and youthful labour within that sector, but also a question of the mode of presentation. A style of writing, a mode of presentation, adequate to this task has not so far been developed. All that can be done is to point towards the sort of analysis, the type of writing that needs to be developed through analysis of a related set of labour-power attributes set around ‘interest in engineering, the trade and the job’ in a later section.

Getting back on track, the use-value aspect is the qualitative, creative and active moment of labour-power in its relation to labouring within the labour process. In relation to the labour process, this involves viewing labour-power in how it relates to issues surrounding the quality of the product - the care, attention, concern and pride in producing, in labouring. For the MEES employers, this expressed itself in many ways through using such shorthand terms as ‘motivation’ and ‘commitment’, being ‘clean and tidy’ and being concerned with accuracy and customer specifications. Secondly (again in relation to the labour process), the creative element involves thinking for and through capital – creatively thinking about the labour process, process improvement and learning new ways of doing things. The third element involves taking initiative, responsibility and being a ‘doer’, getting things done. At this third, outer limit, the relations between the use- and exchange-value aspects of labour power become more manifest as quality of labour considerations blend into quantity of labour (though the relation between these and all aspects is immanent within the transformation of labour-power into labour). All of these three elements are an expression of the use-value aspect of labour-power as it relates to the labour process. Not forgetting the analysis above and the analysis of Rikowski (1996b), the use-value of labour-power can also be viewed in relation to the labour-power market and the social production of labour-power itself (through training and practical education through Day Release at college). Indeed, as the MEES focused on apprentice recruitment it was mainly preoccupied with the labour-power market level of analysis, and hence data from the study throws more light upon the use-value aspect of labour-power as it relates to the labour-power market than it does upon the labour process and social production of labour-power. The following section goes in search of the use-value aspect through a brief journey into the MEES data.

In Search of the Use-value Aspect of Labour-power

‘... [We want] ... ‘doers rather than spectators - a lot of young people like to be spectators these days; watching other people doing things’ (Conquest International, MEES Research Notes).

The use-value aspect of labour-power was easy to unearth and uncover within the MEES data. As noted earlier, any labour-power attributes could be viewed through he lens of the use-value aspect. However, some references to specific labour-power attributes highlight the significance of the use-value aspect of labour-power more brightly than others. The following series of research notes from the MEES illustrates some key points in relation to the use-value aspect of labour-power. The main point is how employers constantly shift between levels of analysis (labour-power market, labour process, social production of labour-power) in their accounts of apprentice recruitment.

What is clear from the following research notes is that, in terms of how the MEES employers thought about and analysed what they were doing, their labour processes were constantly kept in view - or at least their perceptions and conscious appropriations of their labour processes. Secondly, the apprenticeship was also kept in view in terms of the training, Day Release and the general process of becoming ‘skilled’. Thus, the thoughts of MEES employers were composed of a complex of elements which had relations to, and brought into relation, the three levels of analysis - labour-power market, labour process and social production of labour-power - when they reflected on the labour-power attributes appropriate for apprentice recruits within their capitals. This can be seen when the data is viewed through the use-value aspect.

The Bell Components Ltd. example below shows how this employer was relating the labour-power market and labour process levels through the use-value aspect:

‘...‘Get up an’ go!’ ... somebody who is prepared to work. This is what we’ll be tryin’ to look for in the interview. That’s the way I look at it. [...] ... And what we also try an’ find out in the interview, ... is that they ‘ave this, ... this, ... er, ... ‘Get up an’ go!’, the ability t’ work, an’ ... (you know) ... want to work, ... an’ keen to work. Because, ... (you know) ... you can find lads who are prepared to work harder rather than dodge it, ... (you know); it would be easier t’ do it, an’ get on with it than to keep talkin’, sneakin’ off t’ the toilet and wantin’ to go ‘ome all the time’ (Bell Components Ltd., Research Notes, Employer’s emphases).

A number of observations can be made here. Firstly, Bell Components points to the active side of labour-power, the person as labourer willing to take responsibility, to do things without constant supervision and so on, which is one of the key features of the use-value aspect. Secondly, a relation is established between the applicants as viewed within the recruitment process (at the labour-power level) where young people are judged and assessed in terms of the extent to which they are already prepared to act in certain self-directed ways, and a vision of how they would activate these labour-power attributes within the labour process. Thus, for this employer, the process of selecting, judging and assessing the relative quality of labour-power attributes within recruitment is conditioned by reflecting on the labour process. This latter element is partly conditioned by a vision of how the labour process within Bell Components ought to be functioning (that is, people don’t disappear off to the toilets, want to go home and so on).

The fantasy, the wishful thinking element, was not always present. Minex Communications Systems kept a fairly clear view of the relation between the judgement of the quality of applicant’s labour-power attributes and the labour process:

‘Obviously for mechanical technicians we’re looking for people who are good at communicating. We’d have a problem with a lad who’d sat there and just answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’, because these people have got to go round all levels of management, down on to the shop floor, and they’ve got to get information from people and pass the information on. That is probably almost 90% of these person’s jobs. I wouldn’t say it’s an ‘outgoing personality’ but it’s got to be somebody who isn’t a shy introverted type of person. Outside activities - that gives you an idea of how they mix with people’ (Minex Communication Systems Ltd., Research Notes).

This indicates the active, self-reliant and creative labour-power attributes which reflect the importance of use-value aspect of labour-power for Minex’s mechanical technicians. It also show how the employer is relating recruitment to labour process; when lads ‘just sit there and answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’...’ in the interview then this is an indicator that their performance as active labour-power within the labour process it likely to be deficient. As labour-power they are defective persons; they are perceived as persons who are unlikely to become capital in the required form to the desired extent.

A particularly subtle connection between the recruitment and the labour process was made by Teltec Systems:

‘We’re looking for, ... (what shall we say). We’re looking for the type of person who will question ... will ask me questions in an interview. You can interview some people and you do all the hard work, and they say either ‘yes’ or ‘no’, and it sometimes is very difficult to get them to enlarge upon a point. Some boys you can draw out a little in the first instance more, and before they know where they are they’re asking us what we do here, asking us what it’s like to work here. What I’m searching for is the ‘enquiring mind’ ...’ (Teltec Systems Ltd., Research Notes, Employer’s emphasis).

This extract from Teltec indicates a yearning for apprentice applicants to be able ‘think for capital’, to have an ‘enquiring mind’ on behalf of capital. The hope is that this display of inquisitiveness will be transferred first of all to the further social production of that young person’s labour-power (through training, Day Release, learning on-the-job, informal learning) and also into the labour process itself when the young person has ‘come out of their time’ and finished their apprenticeship. The apprentice recruiter at Orion Products makes a similar point in an animated way:

I’m looking for somebody who is self-motivated, wants to ask questions, wants to be interested, wants to know what’s going on, asks questions. Okay, this is all a new experience (of course to the interviewer it isn’t), but I’m looking for somebody who wants to work at Orion, who’s interested. I want somebody who wants to work. I like to ask them why they want to work and I like to hear them say: “Well, I couldn’t bare to be on the dole” (you know), ... and: “I want to work and I know this is a good company”. But I want somebody who’s interested, who’s interested in engineering, particularly somebody who’s got an engineering background. They’ve gone out of their way to gain work experience in their holidays, or they’ve helped their Dad. Okay, all these things give you an idea. So we’re looking for somebody who’s interested, self-motivated, wants to come to work, er, ... wants to go into engineering and whatever trade or skill area they’re applying to, and also it is important that he wants to work here’ (Orion Products, Research Notes, Employer’s emphases).

With Orion, being ‘interested and self-motivated’ within the recruitment interview was an indicator that these attributes of personhood would become labour-power attributes; they would be expressed as labour-power within the labour process. The employer also indicates what factors incline him to believe that applicants’ labour-power attributes have already been developed on this score up to a certain point - work experience, helping Dad, engineering background and the like. The quality and development of the use-value aspect within the personhoods of applicants was gauged through these a vast variety of other means and strategies. Doing paper rounds and having part-time jobs and Saturday and vacation jobs were key indicators of the quality of an applicant’s labour-power attributes from the use-value aspect:

ORION PRODUCTS LTD. – on Holiday Jobs & Saturday Jobs:
‘It’s nice to see, ... it’s nice to see that the lad is motivated; prepared to go out and do something himself.’

MERCURY (AERO PRODUCTS) LTD. – on Holiday Jobs & Saturday Jobs ‘That would be something we’d look at as an indication of their initiative, and their ability to do a job and get along with people at work.’

SIMON GARFIELD ENGINEERING – on Paper Rounds ‘Well, of course, ... if a lad does take a paper round it shows e’s got initiative, and e’s prepared to ‘ave a go, doesn’t it.’

G. ROBERTS (PRECISION ENGINEERING) CO. LTD. – on Paper Rounds ‘Yes. I think that would all come to show that he was a ‘go-ahead’ person.’

These statements by MEES employers can be clearly viewed as having a relation to the use-value aspect; they are indicating factors which show, to them, that the applicant does have that ‘get up and go’, that ‘initiative’ which is an important part of the use-value aspect of labour-power. But even here things are not that simple. Mercury (Aero Products) for example, brings in the collective aspect of labour-power, ‘getting along with people at work’ whilst talking about the initiative required in labour-power from its use-value aspect.

As well as viewing the use-value aspect through relations between labour-power market (at the point of recruitment) and labour process levels, there were also many cases of apprentice recruiters exploring relations between labour-power market and the further social production of labour-power through the training opportunities the firm was offering. For example:

E: If they can’t get reasonable results in CSEs then of course they’re not going to be able to be up to the mental agilities that are necessary
. G: For further education?
E: Yes. He wouldn’t be able to do his Day Release course.

(D. & L. Patterns, Research Notes)

Thus, applicants at D. & L. Patterns are judged on their potential for having their labour-power socially produced to a higher power through Day Release; whether key labour-power attributes already developed (and qualifications are indicators of these learned skills) are of sufficient quality for the young person to successfully negotiate the next phase of labour-power enhancement. However, some employers viewed the use-value aspect of labour-power not just in terms of the quality of labour-power attributes at the point of recruitment but also the likely quality of key attributes implicated in learning on Day Release:

‘Well, I guess we’re looking for someone with a fair amount of self-confidence. And er, ... shows the ability that they’re able to work on their own, er, initiative, to get a trainin’. Uhm, to be extremely keen to want to work at Tech’ (Rex Hydraulic Components Ltd., Research Notes).

This example also brings in an added complexity as the employer relates the subjective aspect of labour-power at the level of the social production of labour-power (subsumption of the will to the dictates of Day Release and on-the-job training) to the use-value aspect in relation to both labour-market and labour process. The complexity of employer-talk in relation to aspects of labour-power and levels of analysis provides a real challenge to anyone attempting to connect the flow of this conversation with labour-power perspectives. These examples above are my first rough and ready attempt to start to provide such an analysis.

One of the difficulties is that employers jump between labour-power market, labour process and social production of labour-power levels as well as skipping between the four aspects of labour-power. However, this seems to indicate that the analytic procedures are long the right lines, for two reasons. Firstly, in terms of shifts between aspects, labour-power is in fact a unity; the aspects only reflect how employers themselves think about it as they move from now this, to that, and now the other aspect. The aspects unify around the expression of labour-power as capital through the person of the labourer, the activation of all the labour-power attributes in the process and act of labouring. Secondly, the labour-power market, labour process and social production of labour-power are internally connected; employers keep their labour processes in view as they recruit, and the social production of labour-power has particular resonance for apprenticeships as their labour-power will be further developed and enhanced at a short/medium term cost to the individual capital. It makes sense for employers to relate these levels in their own analyses of their labour-power needs.

The complexity of the analysis when aspect analysis is brought into relation with employers expounding upon a single set of related labour-power attributes is dizzying. The following section draws upon unpublished notes I wrote in 1989, before I had adopted the methodological procedure of viewing each labour-power attribute through each aspect of labour-power. Extracts from these notes are given with some comments which indicate some of the complex movements made between labour-power aspects when employers talk about recruitment.

Really Complex Analysis

The previous section indicated that employers shift between labour-power market, labour process and social production of labour-power when explaining recruitment and the assessment of labour-power attributes within applicants from their perspective. It also hinted that they also make shifts between aspects of labour-power; first one, then another, aspect comes to the fore. Apprentice recruitment is viewed from four revolving mirrors. This section focuses upon the second type of complexity.

Two extracts (written in 1989) focusing on employers talking about applicants having and showing ‘interest in engineering’, ‘interest in the job’ or ‘interest in the trade’ will be followed by a series of observations on the complex shifts within the analysis.


Extract [1]

‘Dryden Electric Hammers, who referred to looking for applicants who had a good attitude to work, had to ‘get rid of’ a (craft) apprentice of 1980/81 because of his poor attitude to work. Dryden stressed that they wanted ‘somebody who is prepared to work’, and that the craft lad was sacked as he:

‘... wasn’t showing an interest in what he was doing. Academically he was okay, but he just didn’t have the right attitude to his work’ (Research Notes, Employer’s emphasis).

Here, an employer is viewing attitude to work in a specific engineering-oriented way. A ‘right attitude to work’ meant not just willingness to work or an enthusiasm for work in general, but an enthusiasm for a particular kind of work – engineering machine shop work. The MEES research showed that engineering employers in Midtown tended to see ‘a good attitude to work’ not in some abstract way - something a young person ‘had’ which could be transferred to all work environments. They saw it largely in concrete terms; whether an applicant had a good attitude towards working in engineering first of all and, even more concretely, in the particular job or trade on offer - in the employer’s labour process. MEES employers generally acknowledged that even young people with a good attitude to work in other respects might not choose to display it if they did not want to be an engineer. ...’

Extract [2]

Interest in Engineering, the Job and the Trade

‘The MEES employers were more concerned with interest in engineering than they were with general attitudes to work. References to interest in engineering were scattered throughout the interviews. Small group A firms (up to 50 employees) seemed obsessed with it, giving numerous case histories of apprentices who were not basically interested in engineering, which usually ended up with them leaving the firm. Comments such as: ‘... they must be interested in engineering first and foremost’ (D. Clarke (Engineers), or young people must be ‘engineering oriented’ (Harvey and Brinton) were typical. Indeed, Rex Hydraulic Components said that one of the reasons they had moved from Othertown to Midtown was that the workers in Midtown were more ‘engineering oriented’. By this Rex meant that:

‘The performance of young people generally, from an engineerin’ point of view, is far superior in Midtown’ (Research Notes)

... Firms that specified interest in the job/trade did not tend to also refer to interest in engineering, and vice versa. Davies-Roche and E.G.M. Engineering were exceptions. The point was the level of interest. Some employers required an interest in engineering. Others were more specific, looking for an interest in the particular trade their firm was engaged in, or, even more specifically, a particular job within their firm. ... The firms mentioning interest in the job/trade were typically small group A firms (up to 50 employees) who employed no technicians, and four out of the nine group A firms mentioning it were patternmakers. These employers had a strong attachment to their respective trades. They looked for applicants who were similarly fired with a passion to be a patternmaker. A few gear-grinding firms also showed the same type of trade loyalty and enthusiams. Apprentices joining these firms were also joining a collectivity; a community, of skilled craft workers who were dedicated to a trade and where ‘craft pride’ pervaded the atmosphere. Teltec Systems, a firm working on prototype car designs and experimental gear-boxes, were looking for youngsters with a significant attachment to their highly specialised trade in the sense that applicants had a deep interest in cars and some appreciation of the fundamentals of roadholding, drag and fuel consumption. They were not keen on young people who were just interested in the glamour and image of cars. ... There were problems in trying to get young people with a very specific interest in job or trade. It made recruitment difficult. Jay Press Tools summarised the dilemmas:

‘A lot of ‘em come ‘ere wantin’ a job and they’re not interested in apprenticeship, or if they are interested in an apprenticeship they’re not bothered in the job. Handle-pullin’ jobs; there’s a few of those jobs. And they may, at sixteen or seventeen, pay more than apprenticeships ... (they tend to, this handle-pullin’) ... but by eighteen or nineteen the interest has gone. We stress that we want someone that’s gonna stick it for the four years, and usually they call. They’re the ones that call with the father and they’re the ones that’s interested’ (Research Notes).

Jay Press wanted a deep identification with the work. The young person’s will must be deeply subsumed under her/his labour-power, and also within the further social production of his/her own labour-power through apprenticeship training. ...’

Some Comments on the Extracts

The first extract indicates certain perceived relations between the subjective and use-value aspects of labour-power. ‘Interest in engineering/the job/the trade’ can be most readily viewed through the use-value aspect as being related to the degree of initiative, commitment and motivation deemed necessary by recruiters. This is what Dryden Electric Hammers indicated. Young people might be motivated and committed to work in general but not engineering machine shop work in particular. Given this situation they would not take on the active, creative and enquiring attitudes that were required to be subsumed under their labour-powers as elements of the use-value aspect to the degree where the transformation of their labour-power into labour was deemed as acceptable by the employer. This is because the subjective aspect is also at play here as the will of the young labourer has not been sufficiently subsumed under labour-power, and hence the person has not become labour-power (i.e. become capital) to an adequate degree from an employer perspective. The second extract illustrates a similar example in relation to Jay Press Tools, and the related discussion shows a certain awareness of how the Jay Press interviewee shifted between the use-value and subjective aspects of labour-power in his analysis. Of course, lack of interest in engineering would also have an impact on the exchange-value aspect as the speed, volume and quantity of labour would suffer if workers did not have this interest, and other extracts could be brought in to illustrate this point.

The full set of aspects is completed when the collective aspect of labour-power is brought into play in extract 2. In small patternmaking shops in particular, the sense of community, of workers labouring within and through craft, in and through a trade, was overwhelming. But even in less closely-knit environments the ability of a collectivity of labour-power to work in co-operation could be put at risk if workers did not like the work. Everyone must pull their weight in the transformation of labour-power into labour for the maximisation of surplus-value production. Individual recalcitrance affected the collectivity.

Taking this section together with the previous one, an outline analytical framework emerges based upon a commitment to aspect analysis. The concluding section introduces this framework.

Conclusion: Towards Labour-Power Theory

Although the MEES was about the study of apprentice recruitment, I have used it to develop what I would like to call Labour-power Theory. Labour-power theory is concerned with the analysis of labour-power and its aspects. It is also concerned with the analysis of labour-power in relation to the three levels referred to in this paper: market, labour process and social production processes. At its simplest labour-power theory can be summarised in the following table:


Version with Table available in Word, on request to:

However, I have also tried to show that labour-power theory can be used to understand some of the complexities of employers’ discourse as they talk about, expound upon and analyse labour recruitment, labouring in the labour process and the social production of labour-power in relation to their capitals and their sectors of capital. The MEES largely touched upon issues in the cells with * in them, though, as I have shown, in the employer’s consciousness, all the boxes are related. These boxes should be seen as so many windows, as a collection of aspects or ways of seeing sets of very complex relations as described by employers. The concepts deriving from labour-power developed in this paper and in Rikowski (1996b) can be connected up with qualitative data flowing from the MEES as shown here. However, the language seems rather forced and sterile at times, as the labour-power concepts seem unfamiliar. New ways of writing about these phenomena through labour-power theory are needed. But I feel that this type of analysis starts to make sense of employers’ discourse regarding their ‘needs’ for youth labour rather than merely castigating employers as being confused or contradictory. It is not so much that employers are saying contradictory things about their labour-power needs as that labour-power itself simply is a contradictory phenomenon. They are led into (inevitable) contradiction by reflecting upon the phenomenon of labour-power. Finally, such reflections are also conditioned by categories of capital (and the specific relations of labour to these categories) as well as contradictions within labour-power But these points must be shown on another occasion.


MARX, K. (1858) Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (Rough Draft), Trans. M. Nicolaus, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1977.

MARX, K. (1863) Theories of Surplus Value, Part I, London, Lawrence & Wishart, 1969.

MARX, K. (1865) Capital, Vol.III, London, Lawrence & Wishart.

MARX, K. (1866) Results of the Immediate Process of Production, in Capital, Vol.I, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books, 1979.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1990a) The Recruitment Process and Labour Power, Unpublished Paper, Division of Humanities & Modern Languages, Epping Forest College, Loughton, Essex.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1990b) A Material Basis for Discrimination in Recruitment? Paper presented at the British Sociological Association, Annual Conference, University of Surrey, 2-5 April 1990.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1991) Bikes and Jobs II? Journal of the Association of Careers & Guidance Teachers, April 1991, pp.19-21.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1992) Work Experience Schemes and Part-time Jobs in a Recruitment Context, British Journal of Education and Work, Vol.5 No.2, pp.19-46.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1996a) Education, Globalisation and the Learning Society: Towards A Materialist Analysis, Unpublished Paper, University of Birmingham, School of Education.

RIKOWSKI, G. (1996b) Apprenticeship and the Use-value Aspect of Labour-power, First Paper for the ESRC Seminar Series on Apprenticeship, Nene College, Northampton, 31st May 1996.

© Glenn Rikowski, London, 3rd August 2006
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