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Current Editor: Dr. Robert T. Howell
Volume 33, Number 3
Spring 1996

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Studying the Impact of Technology on Work and Jobs

Theodore Lewis
University of Minnesota

It can be compellingly argued that understanding technology has become as important for vocational educators as it has been for technology educators. Indeed, because of shared interests and concerns, technology has the potential for uniting aspects of the discourse of technology educators and vocationalists. Placing it at the center of vocationalism, authors of the SCANS report (Secretary's Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills [SCANS], 1991) set forth mastery of technology as a core competency that schools should provide their graduates to make them workplace ready. Correspondingly, technology educators (Deal, 1994; Johnson, 1991) have suggested that their subject ought to be fashioned to improve the career choices of students in today's workplace.

Vocational institutions have traditionally relied upon labor market information derived from graduate follow-ups and the counsel of advisory committees to make curriculum and planning decisions. While data thus derived are still of value, it is imperative that these approaches be expanded to include proactive, workplace-based inquiry that provides first hand insight and multiple perspectives regarding technological impact. To this end, Lewis and Konare (1993) found that "changing workplace" characterized the highest priority information needed by vocational planners.

In adjusting to new workplace realities it would be a mistake for vocationalists to accept technological determinism as an inevitable fate, requiring meek acceptance that curricula be altered to keep up with the pace of change. There is need instead for a critical disposition that interrogates technology, examines the intentions of those who introduce it, and weighs its desirable as well as undesirable effects.

We are indeed witnessing a revolution in the workplace, wrought substantially by the introduction of technology, the consequence of which is that the very nature of work is changing, with jobs either being transformed or made obsolete (Danziger, 1985; Ducatel, 1994; Fearfull, 1992; Form, 1987; Freeman & Soete, 1994; McLoughlin & Clark, 1994; Spenner, 1983, 1985; Wallace, 1989; Zuboff, 1988) and with skill being redefined and its measurement the object of contestation (Attewell, 1990; Carnevale, Gainer, & Meltzer, 1988; SCANS, 1991; Spenner, 1990; Vallas, 1990). These changes have important human and societal consequences. At the human level, while some workers may find that technology makes their jobs more complex and satisfying, others may find themselves bewildered and suddenly incompetent. Still others may find that their work has become less challenging and that the expertise and artistry they had acquired over the years no longer matter. Some may pay the ultimate price of job loss. At the societal level, balancing productivity gains due to technology with its undesirable side effects (e.g., technological unemployment, lower wage jobs, or worker alienation) has become a challenge.

Workplace changes as described above have had reform consequences for all of education (Johnston, 1993), leading to conjecture as to how much schooling the new jobs will demand (Bailey, 1991). While all of education must respond to the changes, vocational education especially ought to do so because work is central to its basic claims (see Lewis, 1992). Where the issue of the impact of technology is concerned, vocational education has substantially defaulted on its claims that it is at the center of discourse on work. Instead, the locus of such discourse lies with sociologists and other social scientists, who for two decades or so (taking the publication of Braverman's [1974] Labor and Monopoly Capital as a starting point) have been framing and testing hypotheses regarding consequences of technological change on work and jobs, using actual workplaces as their laboratory. One reason why this rich area of discourse has not been influenced by vocationalists might be that vocational education scholarship has been driven more by legislative and policy dictates (e.g., the Perkins Act, or SCANS prescriptions) than by workplace-related theory. The field has paid insufficient attention to the sociology, psychology, and politics of work and workplaces.

Vocational education (and indeed technology education) researchers must come to view the workplace as a laboratory for the study of technology and its impact. How workers fare therein, and the skills they need to survive amidst constant change, must become a core area of inquiry. Three recent studies invite brief comment here. Custer and Claiborne (1992, 1995) found alignment when they juxtaposed the perceptions of vocational instructors and employers on the kinds of employability skills that are needed in the workplace. Similarly, Thomas and Gray (1991) examined the skill priorities of employers. Taken together, these studies were seeking answers to the question, "What skills do workplaces really call for?" In this regard, they could be foundational to further inquiry, located in actual workplaces and based upon worker interviews and direct observation of work. The discourse on skill change has to be expanded to include the voices of workers and move beyond perceptions to workplace reality.

To establish a tradition of inquiry among vocational educators (and technology educators who include career possibilities in their teaching) on changing skill needs, changing work, changing jobs, and the role that technology plays in such change, there is need for an ongoing related discourse. This article is intended to act as a catalyst for such a discourse by focusing on issues, challenges, and approaches that must be considered when studying the impact of technology on work and jobs. It examines relevant theory, possible research hypotheses and questions, appropriate conceptual frameworks, appropriate methodologies, and the problem of operationalizing and measuring skill. One consequence of the ideas explored here is that the inquiry terrain would become more easily navigable for vocational education (and technology education) scholars who might be contemplating study of the new workplace and the role of technology, as a way to test or formulate theory, or as the basis for curricular and instructional decisions.

Theoretical Underpinnings

Discourse on the impact of technology on work pivots around labor process theory as articulated by Braverman (1974). The theory, roughly, states that the basic purpose of introducing technology into workplaces is to foster transference of skill from labor to capital, thereby affording management greater control of the labor process. With the transference of skill comes a loss of worker efficacy. In other words, technology engenders a dialectic between labor and management, mediated by the location of skill, with the stakes being workplace power.

Labor process theory has had to withstand vigorous challenge over time by analysts offering their own conceptions of the nature of the interplay between management and labor when technology is introduced (Burawoy, 1979; Edwards, 1979; McLoughlin & Clark, 1994). Burawoy contended that when technology is introduced, workers invariably find ways to make shop-floor compromises. With the tacit agreement of management, they find ways to compensate for the degree of skill or control they now must yield. Thus worker consent is integral to the introduction of technology. Edwards asserted that the introduction of technology does not automatically lead to workers' yielding their shop-floor power to management. The workplace constitutes contested terrain where each new salvo by management aimed at wresting shop floor control from labor can be expected to be countered. Consistent with Edwards (1979) and E. G. Burawoy (1979), McLoughlin and Clark (1994) offer a stage theory of the introduction of technology. At each stage there is opportunity for negotiation where managers, workers, and their representatives can seek out common ground as they decide on the efficacy of the proposed change.

Challenges notwithstanding, labor process theory remains the predominant explanation of the motivation behind the introduction of technology into work places. If we agree with the theory, then hypotheses of the following order suggest themselves: With the introduction of technology into workplaces (a) there will be net loss of traditional skills, (b) craft knowledge will be devalued or made anachronistic, (c) the power of unions will diminish, and (d) the autonomy and discretionary power of workers will diminish. These hypotheses would be in keeping with the idea of the deskilling of jobs.

Labor process theory has appeal as an explanation of the decline of craft, a phenomenon that is observable across an array of occupations. For example, in the machining trades Computerized Numerical Control (CNC) has replaced traditional setups and processes. Computer Assisted Drafting (CAD) has replaced much of traditional hand drawing. In the printing trades, computers are replacing light tables and artists' knives. Trends such as these provide raw material for the idea of deskilling (Kalleberg, Wallace, Loscocco, Leicht, & Ehm, 1987; Wallace & Kalleberg, 1982; Wilson & Buchannan, 1988). The theory is useful not just in manufacturing settings. For example, it can explain skill change among clerical workers (Fearfull, 1992), and although the teaching profession has remained relatively impervious to technological change thus far, with the prospect of a computer in most homes, will it be long before the job of teacher becomes substantially redefined?

At the opposite pole of deskilling is upgrading, the idea that the introduction of technology enhances skill (Bell, 1973; Grayson, 1993; Hirschhorn, 1984; Piore & Sabel, 1984; Zuboff, 1988). Zuboff (1988) speaks of new informating work environments that are conducive to workplace democracy. Workers have more information about work processes at their command and rely more on their cognitive abilities and less on their bodies. Hirschhorn (1984) views technology as consuming much of the drudgery of work, freeing the worker for contemplative thought. Piore and Sabel (1984) advance the idea of flexible specialization, which is the antithesis of mass production and calls for workers who can combine formal education, practical skill, and experience. This theory sees a role still for craft knowledge.

If we agree that technology engenders skill upgrading, then countervailing hypotheses are suggested: With the introduction of technology (a) the complexity of work is increased, (b) worker autonomy is enhanced, and (c) tasks become more complex.

Between the poles of deskilling and upgrading are theoretical explanations asserting gradations of the effects of technology. One position is that the introduction of technology leads to mixed or contingent outcomes that are context dependent (Form, 1987; Spenner, 1985). A related conception is skill polarization (Gallie, 1991; Milkman & Pullman, 1991), that is, with the introduction of technology there are winners and losers in the workplace. While the job complexity of some may increase, that of others might decrease. Another conception is that the new workplace calls for functional flexibility (O'Reilly, 1992). With the introduction of technology, companies may resort to fewer workers, who are then asked to perform a variety of jobs.

Theoretical explanations relating to this line of inquiry revolve around the intentions of those who make the decision to introduce technology, and the consequences of their actions. Because intentions are at issue, the balance of workplace power comes into question. Consequences must also be discussed in terms of power, but must also extend to manifestations of shifts in power, such as impact on craft, weakening of trade unions, boredom, and alienation. In the discourse on the impact of technology on work and jobs, intentions and consequences become encapsulated in the concept of skill. Skill is the capital with which workers negotiate. Technology invariably calls the value of that capital into question.

Resolving The Problem Of Skill

Consistent with labor process theory, skill is the variable that is the primary measure of technology's effects. Recall that the heart of Braverman's (1974) argument is that technology leads to deskilling. To come to terms with the theory, we must agree on what skill is. There is still disagreement about its nature, and hence, how it ought to be operationalized, observed, and measured. Since the conception, operationalization, and measurement of skill are requisite to the study of technology's impact on work and jobs, it is important that the central tensions be examined.

Whether skill is an empirical or social construct is a source of debate. Positivists may be inclined to an empirical conception, allowing for its exact measurement. Those inclined to critical or interpretative perspectives may be partial to a constructivist explanation. Beyond such concerns, there is the problem of resolving what may be called the politics of skill. For example, unions may be inclined to rate the skill level of a given job more highly than would management. Or, there may be a gender variant in the distribution of skill in the workplace. This section of the article explores many-sided dimensions of skill such as these, and the inquiry challenges they pose to those investigating the impact of technology on work and jobs.

Emerging Meanings of Skill

The question "What is skill?" currently yields varied answers. In everyday life, skill has a commonplace meaning. Within vocational and technology education, skill has been a valued currency and is perceived as being demonstrable, empirically verifiable, and transferable. The mechanism of transfer is instruction, requiring that tasks be decomposed (via task analyses) and taught. The quality of skill one possesses can be measured via predetermined competency standards.

This conception of skill is being contested. Spenner has raised the question of whether skills reside in people or in jobs. Expressing the view that "workplaces and jobs are imperfect translators of human abilities and capacities" (1985, p. 132), he contends (as did Berg in 1970) that schooling and training have more to do with screening available labor market entrants than with real demand for skill. He proposed two conceptions of skill: (a) skill as substantive complexity, referring to "the level, scope, and integration of mental, interpersonal, and manipulative tasks in a job" (p. 135); and (b) skill as autonomy-control, referring to "the discretion available in a job to initiate and conclude action, to control the content, manner, and speed with which tasks are done" (p. 135).

The first of these two measures of skill has been supported empirically. In a factor analysis study of Dictionary of Occupational Titles occupational characteristics, Cain and Treiman (1981) found that the factor substantive complexity explained half of the shared variance. Items that loaded on this factor reflected education and training, intelligence, quantitative and verbal ability, and ability to interact with people, data and things. Spenner's second measure-skill as autonomy-control-has been challenged. In his study of the impact of technology on the jobs of Canadian workers, Grayson (1993) concluded that it was conceptually inappropriate to link skill and autonomy.

At the very least, Spenner's schema suggests that skill goes beyond measurable competence. There must be a difference between a skilled machine and a skilled human being. Power and self efficacy add the uniquely human dimension to the equation of skill and must on that account be factored into our observation and measurement of it.

Offering a schema that subsumes but goes beyond Spenner's, Atwell (1990) has identified four schools of thought relating to skill. The first is positivism, which treats skill complexity as being quantifiable and measurable. Adherents are likely to rely on aggregate skill data published in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles in making determinations about job complexity. The second is ethnomethodology, which is at odds with the positivist school, deems all human activity to be complex, and cautions against the danger of assuming that everyday actions are simple. According to Atwell, the observer's reference point becomes of great importance here. Tasks that the observer can perform may appear to be mundane while more distant esoteric skills may be perceived to be complex. Again, workers may tend to undervalue their day to day skill, assuming the disposition that there is "nothing to it." Zuboff (1988) discusses this phenomenon in her methodology, highlighting it as a possible pitfall. The difficulties here are evident. Both self-report of skill and observer estimates of it could be subject to error.

A third view of skill, set forth by Atwell, is a neo-Weberian or constructionist school, which looks at skill as a contrivance that could be fashioned by strategies such as "social closure." This view is evident in the ways of the Medieval guilds and in the restricted entry practices of trade unions or professional groups. The aura of restricted entry and long apprenticeships conveys complexity and assures monopoly power and control for the groups in question. Under this conception, skill correlates with control over the supply of labor, the training of labor, and importantly, over wage rates.

A final view of skills is Marxist, which also views skill in terms of control-control this time resting not with labor but with capital. This view of skill can be seen to be in a dialectical relationship with the neo-Weberian school. Technology becomes the instrument of workplace power because management can use it to demystify worker-centered skill, and indeed to replace human-based processes. This latter view of skill essentially is the conception around which labor process theory is formulated.

Vallas (1990) has suggested that many issues relating to skill and its manifestations remain unexplored. One such issue surrounds the direction of causality between technology and skill, suggesting the need for research on their possible reciprocal effects. A second issue is the hypothesized link between skill and worker consciousness. The question here is whether the content of their jobs shapes the political attitudes of workers. Vallas speaks of the need for "nuanced, multidimensional conceptions of skill" (p. 384).

Darrah (1994) cautions that to understand skill, we must view workplaces as being variable, along lines dictated in part by technology. What constitutes important skill lies in the eyes of the beholder. In other words, skill is a social construction. He found that while supervisors rate oral communication and working in teams as high level skills, operators contrarily viewed these merely as necessities to get the job done. In this vein, critical tacit knowledge of workers might go unrewarded. Darrah suggests that "the appropriate analytical unit in the study of skills may be the workplace and not the individual job" (1994, p. 82). His counsel might be better understood if we consider how different a unionized work environment might be from a non-unionized one, or the cultural differences that might exist between a large corporation and a small firm. The experience of the introduction of technology can be expected to vary across settings.

Skill and Gender

Social (and political) dimensions of skill are further illuminated when gender is taken into account. Issues here spring from the segmented nature of labor markets, with gender being a basis of difference. For example, men are more likely to be carpenters or electricians while women are more likely to be nurses or secretaries. Is there a skill differential in the jobs that men and women typically perform? This is a complex question, because women have not traditionally had much choice in determining their work, instead relying on what society has deemed to be suitable for them. Steinberg (1990) speaks of the invisibility of women's work-important skill characteristics of women's jobs are overlooked. Horrell, Rubery, and Burchell (1990) found that the jobs typically held by women involved attributes and skills that were different from the jobs of men. Likewise, Myles and Fawcett (1990) found that fewer women than men have skilled jobs. Grayson (1993) found that a majority of women in clerical jobs reported high skill and high autonomy; women were poorly represented in the high skill/high autonomy category among electrical, machining workers, and among engineers. Wajcman (1991) laments the absence of a gender dimension in the sociology of technology. She expresses concern that women may be disadvantaged in technology-oriented workplaces because technology essentially is a manifestation of masculine culture.

Caution would dictate that gender be considered a mediating variable when studying the impact of technology in workplaces. The interrelationships among technology, gender, and skill remain a promising line of workplace inquiry, with particular reference to the circumstances of women. Gender, technology, and skill are certainly issues within formal schooling, particularly within vocational and technology education. Within the K-12 system, boys are more likely to have taken technology as a school subject and to pursue manufacturing related vocational course work (e.g., machining, welding, electrical, construction) than girls.

Awareness of the possibility of a gender effect should influence how firms, occupations, and individuals are to be selected for study. Researchers should enter inquiry with the assumption that men and women may have very different stories to relate, and that their insights, observations, and experiences might be colored by their respective circumstances.

Skills Employers Want

In many practical respects, the frontier of the definition of skill is now occupied by employers, whose need for necessary skills in terms of the imperative to compete in the global economy, have reached the ear of policy-makers and vocationalists. Skill in this realm attends workplaces, not occupations. It manifests itself in a set of attributes, or basics, that are criteria for labor market entry. This employer-driven discourse on skill is inherently problematic because at the rhetorical level, employers often down play the technical skills and tacit knowledge that workers draw upon to establish their worth and value, while they highlight attitudinal attributes. Skill and competence thereby become mediated by value questions. In a recent national report, employers rated having "a good work ethic" ahead of other workplace attributes (Commission on Skills of the American Workforce, 1990). How literally to take such a finding is difficult to determine. If conformity with workplace norms is skill, as employers tacitly claim, then there would be an abundance of such skill in workplaces, since it could be cultivated merely by the imposition of workplace rules and sanctions-such as the prospect of job loss. Skills derived through years of formal schooling, on-the-job training, and experience clearly are much scarcer, and theoretically (as trade unionists would argue) should be of greater value.

A central work on employer needs is Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer's (1988) taxonomy of workplace basics. The skills employers are said to want are independent of jobs. They include learning how to learn, the 3Rs, communication, creative thinking, problem solving, self esteem, and interpersonal skills. These aspects of skill intersect substantially with those set forth in the SCANS report (1991). Despite their widespread acceptance, these now popular conceptions of workplace basics are essentially points of view, requiring validation. As discussed elsewhere in this article, studies within vocational education (Custer & Claiborne, 1992, 1995; Thomas & Gray, 1991) have been seeking to corroborate them, mainly by asking stakeholders such as employers and vocational instructors to identify the necessary workplace skills. One important outcome of these studies is that they have reclaimed space in the discourse for technical skills as an integral part of needed workplace basics.

Often the skills employers want are discussed in terms of workplace literacy, central to which is the ability to read in the context of one's job. Workplace literacy is also a contested view of skill, because the instrumental is accorded primacy over the intrinsic. For example, reading is not assumed to be a general skill, but rather a context-bound one. This is the reason behind the separation Sticht (1978) makes between reading-to-learn, reading-to do, and reading-to-assess. By this conception, one may be able to follow steps from an electronics manual, but be unable to read the daily newspaper. (See Diehl and Mikulecky [1980] for a workplace-based account).

The skills employers want must be accounted for in studying the impact of technology on work and jobs. But employers cannot have the last word on needed skills. Skills have a cost, which employers must pay. It might therefore be natural for them to understate or undervalue their worth. Hence possible differences between employer perceptions and that of workers must be reconciled, as should any differences between perceived worker skill needs and skills actually needed to get work done.

Measuring Skill

Just as the meaning of skill is contested, how to measure it is also at issue. Spenner (1985, 1990) has identified three tendencies here, nonmeasures, indirect measures, and direct measures. Nonmeasurement assumes that skill levels correlate with occupational class. Thus, white collar skills are tacitly assumed to be of greater complexity than blue collar ones. Indirect measures utilize skill proxies, such as wage rates or level of education. Direct measures require "explicit assessment of specific dimensions of skills for jobs or workers in jobs" (Spenner, 1985, p. 133). Spenner asserts that with direct measures, issues relating to validity and reliability are more easily examined. In his view, the shortage of direct measures has hampered inquiry into skill changes in the workplace. An example of a direct measure approach can be seen in Milkman and Pullman's (1991) study of the introduction of technology into an auto assembly plant in which jobs were decomposed and the impact of technology on job facets examined.

As Spenner points out, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is the most frequently used source of direct measurement data in studies of skill change. He finds it to be a flawed but still unparalleled source of data. Each occupation in the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is classified and coded in terms of worker functions, physical demands, and environmental conditions. From the standpoint of skill measurement, the "worker functions" segment of the code is of greatest interest. It catalogs capacities required to perform jobs, in terms of one's relative involvement with data, people, and things, each represented by a taxonomy of behaviors.

Because the Dictionary of Occupational Titles provides time series data, it is possible to track skill changes, or compositional shifts (the mix of job titles), within occupations or industries. This capability is of great value when one is inquiring into the impact of technology. Whether upgrading or deskilling occurs can be assessed, though one must bear in mind that these are aggregated data. In a study of the impact of technology on work and jobs in the printing industry of a mid-Western state (Lewis, 1995), the Dictionary of Occupational Titles was utilized to study temporal changes. Changes in the occupation of study could be tracked at two points in time, 1977 and 1991. The temporal shift in skill revealed by the Dictionary of Occupational Titles suggested that within the last decade or so, traditional pre-press skills would have been in retreat as companies scrambled to become proficient in the new technologies. The practical details of this retreat were then probed through study of actual cases.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles

While the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is heavily relied upon by researchers studying skill change, its advantages must be tempered by its disadvantages. Advantages include the opportunity it affords to study the same jobs over time, opportunity to study compositional shifts within occupations and industries, and the comprehensiveness of its database. Disadvantages include the unrepresentativeness of the sample of occupations listed (manufacturing jobs are overrepresented, while service and clerical jobs are under represented); the tendency to undervalue jobs that typically are held by women; classifying a majority of the listed occupations on the basis of fewer than three jobs; aggregating the data so they are not necessarily representative of the reality within individual firms; and the unstable reliabilities of the job characteristics. (See especially Cain & Green, 1983; Cain & Treiman, 1981; Miller et al., 1980; Spenner, 1985).

Spenner cautions that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles "probably underestimates the true level of skill change" (1985, p. 134), but adds that studies that do not use the Dictionary of Occupational Titles reach conclusions that are comparable to those that do use it. Vallas (1990) asserts that the Dictionary of Occupational Titles tends to be partial to the upgrading explanation of skill change. He further observes that despite the clear need for multiple dimensions of skill, the Dictionary of Occupational Titles is restricted to a single dimension-complexity-while ignoring autonomy-control. This observation is consistent with Cain and Treiman's (1981) finding that substantive complexity was the dominant factor reflected by Dictionary of Occupational Titles skill estimates, explaining half of shared variance. Autonomy did not emerge as a factor.

Many of the basic criticisms of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles are now embodied in proposals to overhaul and replace it with a new database of occupational titles that can serve the needs of employers, trainers, educators, and others better (Advisory Panel for the Dictionary of Occupational Titles, 1993).

Studying Workplaces

The issues discussed here (e.g., contested meanings of skill and difficulties of measuring it) must eventually be distilled to be of practical utility in the inquiry process. Such a distillation must come to inform conceptual frameworks, instrumentation, design, and methodology. This section seeks to move the discussion closer to practice by dwelling first upon suggested frameworks for inquiry, then upon methodologies utilized in selected studies on the impact of technology on work.

Research Frameworks

Frameworks for the study of technology's impact on work and jobs must provide opportunity for the testing of hypotheses relating to upgrading and deskilling. They must also reflect sensitivity to the subtle and multidimensional nature of skill. Setting forth one such framework, Form, Kaufman, Parcel, and Wallace (1988) asserted that when studying the impact of technology on work the establishment ought to be the most important unit of analysis because it allows individuals, departments, or work units to be studied simultaneously. This assertion is in keeping with that of Darrah (1994). Hypotheses would reflect upgrading or deskilling propositions. Research questions would vary as the focus shifted from worker to department to establishment. The dependent variables of interest would shift from skill/autonomy, to job satisfaction, to market characteristics, or type of technology.

Hampson, Ewer, and Smith (1994) posit a research framework that would critically interrogate the idea of post-Fordism (production beyond the rigidities of the assembly line and beyond mass production). They probe whether the new workplace culture allows or precludes common action to be taken by workers, and whether practices such as out-sourcing (contracting out components) affect the career possibilities of many workers. Consistent with the critical posture of this framework, they include issues of technology and gender.

Research Methodologies

The thought processes embodied in research frameworks become operationalized in the actual approach to inquiry. What questions are asked, to whom, about what, and to what end, are all manifestations of stances and ideologies that underlie the research framework. Examination of the methodologies of selected studies can be instructive in making one a better consumer and ultimately a better producer of such work.

An illustrative study from the standpoint of design and methodology is Milkman and Pullman's (1991) examination of the impact of the introduction of robotics and programmable automation on work and jobs in an auto-assembly plant. This study utilized multiple sources of data. The methodology included document inspection, which provided background data on the company, such as its profile of layoffs and hires across departments. It was thereby possible to examine specific labor force census changes wrought by the introduction of the technologies. Also included were on-site observations of workers on the job. The authors conducted extensive interviews of workers, managers, and union officials, both individually and in groups. Further, they conducted an in-plant survey of the impact of the introduction of technology on the workforce. Data were retrospective; workers were asked to recall pre- and post-changeover memories pertaining to their jobs and to compare the two. While questionnaires were used, they were completed during face to face interviews with respondents.

Workers were further asked how much the technology had affected their work, and their responses were measured by a Likert-type scale, ranging from a lot to not at all. They were also asked if any of the work they performed previously was now automated. The researchers checked for changes in job content. They picked out specific job-tasks and tried to find out if these were more important now than before. They compared results across classes of workers. For production workers, tasks used for comparisons included tool use, inspection, machine monitoring, and repair. For skilled trades workers, tasks included troubleshooting, repairing equipment, programming, training new workers, diagnostic work, and making parts. The authors were also interested in changes in skill levels. They did this by asking workers to compare the importance of certain skills before and after the changeover. Skills included reading, spelling, math, and creativity. Overall, they found "an unmistakable deskilling tendency" in all four production departments. Conversely they found "marked upgrading" in the case of skill workers, more so for high-tech than traditional ones. This case supported the contingency explanation of the impact of technology (Form, 1987). There was also evidence of skill polarization.

A possible shortcoming of the approach here was that the data were aggregated, resulting in the suppression of individual perspectives. It is the human drama attending the introduction of technology that makes this such an important and interesting problem area.

Zuboff (1988) studied eight organizations that had introduced technology in ways that had substantially altered work processes and jobs. In her methodology, she explained that "timing" was an important factor in collecting data. There was a "window of opportunity" during which people working with the technology for the first time were at peak interest, and keenly reflective. Beyond this window, they would seek to "accommodate their understanding to the altered conditions of work, making it more difficult to extract fresh insights from beneath a new crust of familiarity" (p. 13). This ethnomethodological stance is consistent with Atwell (1990). Like Milkman and Pullman (1991), Zuboff searched out subjects who had worked at the same tasks under old conditions and new, requiring them to compare both conditions.

An intriguing methodological strategy employed in this study was to have some subjects draw pictures that portrayed the felt sense of their job experience before and after the conversion to the new computer system (Zuboff, 1988). These renderings were said to provide an avenue for the expression of feelings that workers had difficulty converting into words. The illustrations were then grouped into thematic categories, which became the basis of analysis.

Wilson and Buchanan (1988) examined the impact of computerized numerical control (CNC) on skill in three engineering companies. The method was a combination of structured and unstructured interviews, and a questionnaire. With the introduction of CNC, the machines were now programmed by computer programmers away from the shop floor. The technology brought clear workplace advantages, including reduced need for maintenance persons, since "self-diagnostics" were integral to the design of the machines. The old job was compared with the new. Workers were asked to rate their extent of agreement or disagreement with statements about the effects of technology on their work. The researchers concluded that the introduction of CNC and the division of labor it engendered had given managers greater control over the labor process, but that much shop floor intelligence still resided with the workers. There was still opportunity for the exercise of skill and discretion.

In a study cited previously, Grayson (1993) examined the relationship among skill, autonomy, and technological change, by using data from the General Social Survey conducted by Statistics Canada in 1989. The sample consisted of 9,338 Canadian workers, who were asked the following questions as part of the survey:

  • Do you agree or disagree that your job requires a high level of skill?
  • Do you agree or disagree that there is a lot of freedom to decide how to do your work?
  • In the last 5 years, how much has your work been affected by the introduction of computers or automated technology? Would you say greatly, somewhat, hardly or not at all? (p. 26)

Grayson was testing Spenner's (1985) conception of skill as autonomy/control. The responses of subjects with respect to skill were compared with those with respect to freedom (autonomy). The responses were analyzed by gender, industrial sector, and occupations, using the chi square statistic. Frequencies of instances of high skill/high autonomy, high skill/low autonomy, low skill/high autonomy, and low skill/low autonomy were determined. The results indicated that gender, occupation, and industrial sector all made a difference in skill and autonomy.

As to the impact of technology, Grayson further found that those who characterized their jobs as high skill/high autonomy were more likely to report that technology had greatly influenced their work. This trend was in keeping with upgrading theory. But Grayson noted also that the impact of technology varied across occupations, industrial sectors, and gender.

In another study cited previously, Lewis (1995) customized interview protocols according to the status of key informants (e.g., workers, managers, supervisors, union representatives). Skill was treated as a many-sided construct. Following Spenner (1985), aspects of skill built into the interview protocol included autonomy/control (e.g., "Can you use your own judgment?" or "Can you make adjustments on your own?") and substantive complexity (e.g., "Do you troubleshoot if there is a problem?" or "Are there new things to be learned all the time?"). These notions were complemented by questions reflective of skills employers want. Sample protocol items here included "Do you work in a team?" or "Do you have to read and work from manuals?" Preliminary findings are suggesting mixed effects, both the erosion of craft and upgrading of aspects of prepress work.


The studies discussed here, while not exhaustive, illustrate a variety of methodological possibilities. There is the option of case methodology (Lewis, 1995; Milkman & Pullman, 1991; Wilson & Buchanan, 1988; , 1988), or the use of aggregate data (such as the Dictionary of Occupational Titles) or existing databases of workers (Grayson, 1993;Lewis, 1995). Within these options one sees a variety of data gathering approaches including worker self report, document inspection, individual interviews, group interviews, face to face completion of structured surveys, on site observation of work, and use of drawings as a proxy for opinion. There are also a variety of inquiry approaches-positivistic, critical, or interpretative.

Discussion and Conclusion

This article has addressed important issues, challenges, and approaches that must be considered when studying the impact of technology on work and jobs. Braverman's (1974) labor process theory, the dominant explanation of technology's introduction, was examined, along with important challenges such as the role of consent, and the view of the shop floor as contested terrain. Deskilling and upgrading arguments were explored. Since skill is at the heart of labor process theory, a discussion of conceptual and methodological issues was set forth that examined emerging meanings of skill, the problem of skill and gender, and skills employers want. Issues involved in the measurement of skill were then addressed, featuring an examination of uses of the Dictionary of Occupational Titles. A discussion of protocols for studying workplaces followed, featuring illustrative examples from exemplary studies.

Technology's hold on the modern workplace cannot be seriously disputed. Since work stands at the core of vocationalism, few issues are as important to vocational educators as technology (Lewis, 1992). As indicated earlier, technology might be a unifying theme in the convergence of technology education and vocational education.

Despite the many obvious ways in which technology has improved our world, it is necessary to adopt a critical stance towards it. In workplaces, employing technology is an imperative, and could be a blessing for the owners of capital, if they can afford it. Technology engenders productivity. The jury remains out for workers, especially in these times of "re-engineering" when companies are finding it possible, mainly because of enabling technologies, to lay off experienced workers (Rifkin, 1995). As companies become more reliant on technology, long term mutual loyalties that were the basis of job security erode.

This article was intended to provoke the scholars of our field to enter into a discourse on the nature of inquiry on the impact of the introduction of technology into workplaces, so that we can all become better at framing questions and embarking upon inquiry of this order. The new workplace remains a mysterious black box into which we send graduates and hope for the best. Providing them with technological acumen would appear to be a responsible course of action. Much ambiguity and confusion pervade the rhetoric as to what skills are needed out there. Sometimes it appears that no skills are needed, beyond a good attitude or the ability to be flexible. Other times it appears that one needs merely to be literate.

Computerized environments are now the order of the day. What do students really need to exist in these environments? What should the curricular and instructional response be within vocational education and technology education with the life cycle of specific technologies becoming ever shorter? Inquiry into the new workplace can provide some answers. What is needed now is that others join in the conversation.


Lewis is Associate Professor, Department of Vocational and Technical Education, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota. The author thanks doctoral student Stephan Flister for conducting part of the library research that supported this article.


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Reference Citation: Lewis, T. (1996). Studying the impact of technology on work and jobs. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 33(3), 44-65.

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