Impact of Technology on Work and Jobs in the Printing Industry Implications for Vocational Curriculum
University of Minnesota
In their text, Curriculum Development in Vocational and Technical Education, Finch and Crunkilton (1993) argue that a fundamental characteristic of the vocational and technical curriculum is that it must be "responsive to technological changes" in society (p. 69). They note that, unlike times past, work is no longer static. Thus:
The contemporary vocational curriculum must be responsive to a constantly changing world of work. New developments in various fields should be incorporated into the curriculum so that graduates can compete for jobs and, once they have jobs, achieve their greatest potential. (p. 16)
To assure the responsiveness of their curricula, vocational curriculum writers have typically resorted to strategies such as task analyses, industry advisory committees, and tracer studies. However, these strategies may no longer be sufficient in light of the pace of technological change in the workplace.
In his essay on the problems, politics, and possibilities of the vocational curriculum, Gregson (1996) encourages vocationalists to step back from the technocratic approach to curriculum development and to become more concerned with context. He suggests that the vocational curriculum ought to assume a transformative character. It should address the knotty issues of class, power, and control. To get at the root of the issues, first-hand connection with actual workplaces is required. Vocational curriculum developers must avoid prescribing from a distance. Distance tends to mask attendant contextual factors, while narrowing the focus to technical content.
Lewis and Konare (1993) conducted a study of the labor market information needs of technical and vocational college personnel in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They found that the type of information deemed to be the highest priority was that which related to the changing workplace, which occupations were becoming obsolete, how the educational requirements of jobs were changing, and how technology was affecting jobs. The authors concluded that traditional methods of gathering labor market information should be augmented by information derived through "first-hand, systematic, and continuing probing and documenting of labor market events" (p. 43). They further suggested that vocational curriculum developers could benefit from assuming an ethnographic stance, including spending time in actual workplaces, observing and gathering data. This approach would assure deeper understanding of the issues than would otherwise be possible, allowing the needs of employers and workers to be equally reflected in curricular considerations.
Consistent with Gregson's (1996) entreaty to extend beyond a restricted technical focus in vocational curriculum theory and practice, and Lewis and Konare's (1993) emphasis on direct observation, this study represents an attempt to understand technological change in an industry, through the experiences of those involved in such change. Meanings and understandings derived from such probing would provide lessons for the curriculum.
This study was designed to examine the shift in the pre-press aspect of the printing industry from manual to electronic stripping. Stripping involves color separation and image assembly on a page, with the image being some combination of graphics and text. In its traditional form, the work was a high form of craft, performed on light-tables, involving the layering of film negatives. The trade was transmitted through various combinations of vocational school preparation and on-the-job training. Today, traditional stripping is rapidly being replaced by so-called "front-end platforms" (FEPs) in the form of desktop publishing systems and color electronic pre-press systems (CEPS). In an industry study titled PRINTING 2000, it was explained that the main "drivers of technological change" are digitally structured information, FEPs, and telecommunications systems (Printing Industries of America, Undated, p. v-4). The prediction was that these new technological drivers would transform information from the traditional paper medium into electronic form, and that this information would be used in entirely new ways by the new media. With respect to the pre-press aspect of the industry, the authors predicted that:
By 1995 pre-press systems will be transmitting data (text and graphic images) and documents between hardware systems from different manufacturers. Consequently, pre-press functions and products will be linked to imagesetters and graphic artists at one end of the production process and to traditional and nontraditional printers at the other. Many of the design and creative functions that clients formerly handed over to vendors are now being pulled back by the client; in general, FEPs are enabling clients to retain control over the production of the camera copy or its electronic substitute. (Printing Industries of America, p. v-7)
Furthermore, the authors predicted that the new technologies will "dramatically affect the nature of the shop workforce and its relationship with management" (p. v-10). Because new skills will be needed in the front office and on the shop floor, the result will be "new jobs with new specifications, continued technical training, adjustments in salary ranges, and changes in work rules and relationships with management" (p. v-11). Mandel, Hauser, Carney, Gonzalez, and Bose (1993) examined the major printing technologies in the context of the global economy and set forth likely futures for the North American industry. They contend that the changes wrought by technology extend well beyond production.
The printing industry is among many industries that have been forced to deal with the impact of technological change. This is an industry that is centuries old, with a venerable craft tradition. Today many of the craft aspects are in retreat. In a study of the industry over the period from 1931-1978, Wallace and Kalleberg (1982) found a clear erosion of craft skills in the composing room. Based on this work, they predicted the total elimination of many printing jobs in the future. Subsequently, Kalleberg, Wallace, Loscocco, Leicht, and Ehm (1987) documented a deskilling trend in the composing, platemaking, and pressroom operations in the newspaper segment of the industry. They wrote that "many composing room workers are now relegated to 'paste-up' jobs" (p. 56), and that the new technologies had led to a "drastic reduction in the number of composing room workers" (p. 57).
Technological change is of critical interest to vocational educators. As indicated in PRINTING 2000, the new technologies are rapidly transforming much of pre-press work from blue collar to white collar. The most obvious change is the need for computer literacy. In the case of the Dutch printing industry, Hovels and Berg (1994) have shown that it is vital for vocational institutions to be informed about changes in the industry and to be flexible in their conception of training, the range of courses they are prepared to offer, and the structure of training. Beyond mere responsiveness to change, it is important for vocationalists to understand the interplay of skill, power, and control in the workplaces that are being transformed by technology.
The classic explanation of technological change in workplaces is embedded in labor process theory which, as articulated by Braverman (1974), contends that technology is introduced by management in its bid to separate the conception of work from its execution. With the introduction of technology, the subjectivity of craft is replaced by the predictability of the machine. Discretionary aspects of work are diminished. Workers lose shop floor control and become deskilled. As Smith (1994) notes in a retrospective on Braverman's work, deskilling was predicated on management's constant quest to learn as much as possible about how workers performed jobs, forever seeking "to appropriate their knowledge and to diminish the space in which (they) could maintain that knowledge" (p. 45). Indeed, as one looks at technological change in the printing industry, much of what used to be the craft knowledge of pre-press workers is now embedded in software.
However, just as deskilling (or downgrading) is a likely consequence of the introduction of technology, upgrading is also possible as new complex skills requiring high levels of education and training materialize (Hirschhorn, 1984; Zuboff, 1988). Thus, Spenner (1985) speaks not only of upgrading and downgrading, but also of mixed effects. Others speak of "contingent effects" and of "functional flexibility" (see Form, 1987; Gallie, 1991; McLoughlin & Clark, 1994; Milkman & Pullman, 1991). At the extreme, the introduction of technology leads to the displacement of labor (Freeman & Soete, 1994; Rifkin, 1995; Wallace, 1989). A more complete examination of these theoretical considerations can be found in Lewis (1996a).
Problem and Purpose
Technology is transforming work in the broad front of occupations for which vocational institutions prepare their clients. The problem, however, was that technological change remains a relatively unexplored area of inquiry in vocational education research and it barely informs curriculum theorizing in the field. The purpose of this study was to explore the phenomenon of technological change in a particular industry, printing. It is hoped that this research will serve to illuminate the curricular problem that vocational institutions confront as they seek to respond to changes in technology, work, and jobs.
Workers and managers from six printing firms in a midwestern state were interviewed on the theme of new technology in pre-press work. These interviews focused on comparisons between contemporary electronic stripping and more traditional stripping. The companies examined in this study were selected to represent a range of transformation stages from traditional to electronic stripping. While the companies had technological change in common, they differed in a number of ways, notably size, product, age, and presence of a union. The theoretical framework of the study was informed substantially by labor process theory.
Interviews were conducted in the spring of 1995. To understand the problem from the vantage point of vocational institutions, printing programs in four such institutions were visited and observed prior to data collection. Informal conversations were held with printing instructors at all four colleges. At one of the colleges, taped interviews were conducted with two of the instructors. At a second college, the researcher attended three printing program advisory committee meetings focusing on how the curriculum should respond to technological change in pre-press.
To obtain a union perspective, the vice-president of a local graphic communications union was interviewed. Since two of the companies in the study were unionized, union insights could also be gleaned through formal and informal interviews in these settings. A total of 48 people were formally interviewed.
Each of the six companies was at a different stage of introducing technology to its pre-press work. However, all were still learning the new medium, still in the process of transformation. Case methodology (Yin, 1989) was employed to assess the impact of the introduction of technology into the company, on jobs, work, and workers. Instrumentation for the study consisted of a semi-structured interview protocol, which varied in nature according to the status of the interviewee (e.g., manager, supervisor, union steward, converted traditional stripper, or desktop publisher) (see Form, Kaufman, Parcel, & Wallace, 1988). Managers provided a corporate perspective on technological change; union people injected insight from the perspective of organized labor; and all workers contributed insight into the different ways in which the technology had affected their lives and their jobs. Converted traditional strippers (to electronics) could provide contrast between the old and the new. Traditional workers who continued to work at the light table could reflect upon how the old job had changed.
Skill was central to the inquiry and the interview protocol was accordingly focused. Consistent with recent thinking (Attewell, 1990; Darrah, 1994; Spenner, 1990), skill was viewed as a nuanced construct. On one hand, it could embody substantive complexity or, on the other hand, autonomy-control (Spenner, 1985). In keeping with a schema set forth by Carnevale, Gainer, and Meltzer (1988), skill was also viewed in terms of workplace basics, practicing teamwork, learning how to learn, and knowing the three Rs (reading, writing, and arithmetic).
The primary method of gathering data was the taped interview. This was supplemented by informal conversations and on-site observations of people at work. The researcher gained permission to schedule and conduct private interviews with an agreed-upon cross-section of workers, supervisors, and managers. Interviews lasted for approximately one hour.
The results are organized by within-company observations. They are followed by synthesized discussions of transcending issues and themes which are, in turn, played against reactions to technological change observed at the technical colleges (Miles & Huberman, 1994). As each company's experience is discussed, important stakeholders, managers, supervisors, and workers, are given voice. Specifically, the transition from traditional stripping to electronic stripping (as viewed by these stakeholders) is explored.
Company A, a subsidiary of a large printing conglomerate, was established in 1848. At the time of the study, this unionized company, which specializes in catalog printing, had a workforce of 700. The new electronic pre-press technology was being introduced in a collaborative way. The company agreed that it would transition into electronic pre-press by providing necessary retraining for its traditional pre-press workers on a phased basis. Customers had prodded the company toward electronics by dramatically increasing the incidence with which they were submitting work on diskettes. At the time of the study, retraining was underway. Workers were being moved into electronics in waves on a seniority basis. They were at various stages, from those who had completed initial training to those waiting in line.
A manager. A manager in this company explained the decision to convert existing workers (rather than hire outside workers) in moral terms. Management did not wish "to end up with 55-year-old strippers (for whom) there is no work. We think that would be a real tragedy." While some traditional workers would have difficulties, it seemed that workers would overcome these through a team approach to solving problems. He explained, "We've hired a supervisor to hold it together." The company was striving to preserve the jobs of the senior workers in the transition process to electronic pre-press.
A supervisor. The supervisor hired to establish the electronic pre-press department expressed reservations about the approach of shifting people to electronics on the basis of seniority. He pointed out that in cases where workers had 5-10 years before their retirement, they would choose to learn at their own pace. The department would grow faster if the company selected and invested in "good qualified people." He was not saying, however, that traditional pre-press workers were uniformly a "bad fit" to these new innovations. Indeed, he felt that the company needed people with "good printing backgrounds" since "we can teach computers (to somebody) easier than you could teach printing." He had been a converted traditional printer himself, and consequently worried about the high cost of converting at least some workers. The belief that printing, more than computing, was the firmer base for electronic pre-press workers was a recurring theme throughout the interviews.
A worker. Samson, a journeyman stripper, spoke of seeing "the writing on the wall" with respect to technology and becoming resigned to converting to the new electronic way. He was among those who had already been transitioned over to electronics. His reflections conveyed how wrenching an experience it had been for some workers. In his words:
I also was basically ready for a change myself, Okay? And I wanted to (try) this electronic approach. But I had a lot of apprehension about it, because it was something that I hadn't done before. Also someone at my age, I was kind of a little bit concerned about that...it was an unknown area. It was like jumping off a cliff into a fog and not knowing how far you are dropping. I almost gave it up, because the stress and anxiety of trying to learn so much information just burned my brain. I would have headaches. I couldn't sleep at night. I would wake up dreaming about the actual jobs. It was pretty much hell there for a good six months.
He continued, comparing the new electronic version of the job with the traditional processes. He felt some loss. The computer was now in control. He explained:
When you were a stripper you were in control because you had your hands on a piece of physical object, a flat, a film, a brush, a knife, you were in hands-on control. Now, we go in there and you punch in what you feel (are) the right numbers, and the computer is doing the work. And when it doesn't come out, you don't know. You're helpless.
Samson's view was that this control can never be regained by the worker. However, when some reacted to the computer with resignation and dread, others found it to be a new source of intellectual life. One such person was Pete whose view was that:
For me, I feel it's a challenge. I enjoy it. Every day that I come to work there is something new. The thing is with electronics, you have to know more than one way of achieving your end. You have to be able to, you know, problem-solve.
Company B was established in 1949. At the time of the study it had a unionized workforce of 105 employees. Like Company A, it had recently made the move to electronic pre-press. Over a two-year period it had doubled its capability to handle electronic jobs. Unlike at Company A, many traditional strippers had been fired. Company B did not have the same degree of cooperation with the union, or commitment to traditional workers that Company A had.
A manager. The production manager in this company had been brought in to spearhead the shift to electronics. His approach to personnel was a mixture of layoffs, hiring, and in-house training. He explained:
We have to bring in some of the sharper people from the outside who've been exposed to the modern electronics...who are not afraid of computers and who are very facile with them. But they don't have the depth of knowledge and tradition that we need. And then we are taking a couple of our traditional people who are really at very high wage rates and we're bringing them in to work along side these. So we are getting a mix to try to get that traditional knowledge and some of the patience and focus along with the high energy, fast-thinking of the younger worker.
The manager felt that vocational institutions had an important role to play in preparing workers for electronic pre-press environments, but pointed out that there would be a big gap between the trained entry-level worker and the necessary elements to "tread water" in the company. The company strategy here was to hire vocational graduates when they had two to three years of post-training experience. He felt that a good strategy for vocational institutions would be to partner with industry groups to help define the needs of companies. Internships in printing companies would be a worthwhile aspect of vocational training programs. The imperative for partnership between vocational institutions and firms to deal with technological change was a recurring theme.
A worker. Dave, one of the traditional strippers in this company, spoke of how the job had changed. He reminisced about an earlier time "when someone would hand me something and not have to explain it to me or belittle me in any way or make me feel like I am somehow inferior, that they would come to me and say, 'here, we trust you'." There was an editorial tone here. This worker spoke of pride in work, of wanting to put out a good quality product "because, you know, that's got my name on it."
But traditional stripping had now lost its lustre. There was diminished complexity, little room for creativity. Much of the work had become routine. He noted:
We are now doing a lot of computer repair, you know, work that comes from the computer, we have to repair it. It's cheaper to have us do it on the table than it is to run it through the computer, or they are so backed up in the output devices they would rather us fix it.
Dave continued, "I see my job disappearing because the computers will eventually take up more of the work. The customer's no longer creating the artboard, he's creating the computer file. That's why I am currently taking some classes in QuarkXpress."
One reservation he had about needing to be retrained was that he would, in effect, be restarting his career. He stated, "The only problem then is that I go down to the bottom of the heap. The training I gained over the years is only of supplemental help." Another problem was uncertainty as to whether he would be able to assimilate new training, or whether he would like working with computers. Dave felt that the computer was bringing about the gradual extinction of craft. Many aspects of craft were now being lost. He lamented that "we used to have a lot more control over how things fit together." Correcting work that comes off a computer is "not challenging" and "more of a nuisance."
A shop steward. As indicated above, Company B was a unionized company, but the union was relatively powerless with regard to the introduction of computers. A shop steward, Denzil, explained that in the past the unions could control training. Unions could run their own printing schools, utilizing their own senior members as tutors. But with the advent of desktop publishing and its varying software, the unions could no longer keep up. They were losing their grasp. They had to spend their time "trying to hold ground." These sentiments were reiterated when one spoke with the union vice-president. Unions in the industry were seen to be in survival mode.
Company C was established in 1990 and had a workforce of 80 employees. It was a "color-house," that is, its product was film, not printed products. It was non-union. A plant tour quickly revealed that the operations were almost completely converted to electronics. The shear density of computers and computer-related equipment was impressive. This seemed to be a high-tech world, with young workers sitting in front of screens, creating images. It was a far distance from the traditional composing room. Many of the pre-press workers were college-educated, and typically had been hired after completing internships in the plant. The senior manager emphasized that workers had to be highly educated. Traditional pre-press workers had to change their ways, he opined. They had to learn the new mode.
Workers. One worker (Jake) had been brought aboard by the manager to help rationalize the stripping department. His experience had been in traditional stripping, but he had taken short seminars in electronic applications as well. As electronics expanded in the plant, he was trained on a piece of the new equipment. He explained that he had been on that piece of equipment for two years. No longer supervising people, he was still learning how to use the equipment. He considered the move to be "the best thing I have ever done." He felt valuable in the electronic shop because co-workers were always asking printing-related questions. They were drawing upon his printing knowledge while at the same time, he was still attempting to understand how to see things from the vantage point of computers.
Jake felt that his period of training on the computers, three weeks, had been too short. He and other traditional strippers had been trained and then "thrown into a production environment." This was quite unlike training in the old days. He now had to take risks in order to learn. Jake felt that the pride that was once evident under traditional conditions was now missing. He used to receive printed samples of completed jobs. Now there was disconnection between his efforts and the finished product.
Tom, a traditional stripper who had, to that point, deliberately resisted conversion to electronics, felt that the job had changed "quite a bit." He lamented, "what we used to do and what we do today (are) almost two different things." Echoing the observations of other veteran workers, he observed that the traditional job now consisted of:
easy type corrections, just easier stuff. And the way we go about doing it, we go pretty fast, and it's not the right way of doing it, but it gets the job done right away. Technically it's not the right way of doing things.
Traditional stripping had become a mere support function. As to what had been lost, Tom lamented, "I would think almost everything is lost, really." It was possible now, he mused, to take somebody off the street, put them in front of a computer and show them what to do "and they can do it but they wouldn't know why." They would not know printing. They would not understand standard printing processes such as "trapping," or when to spread and choke, he opined. Tom was ambivalent. He saw the value of the technology, but lamented the decline of craft:
I guess I'm for the technology, but it takes stuff away from the individual. The machine does it much nicer and better. I mean it's unbelievable what the stuff can do.
This worker's reaction raised the question of the human cost of technological change. When competence is yielded to the machine, is there not a psychic cost?
Company D, established in 1967, had a workforce of 125 employees. The company was halfway converted to electronics. The CEO explained that the conversion to electronics was forced, noting that "every other decision I've ever made I was able to control my own feelings and destiny."
This CEO's point should be considered as it applies to Braverman's theory regarding the introduction of technology in workplaces. It may be that some companies are no longer able to be as deliberate in the process of converting to the new technologies as they might have been at earlier points of change. They might find themselves being swept along by the irresistible force of technological determinism.
Company D afforded traditional strippers the opportunity to be retrained. According to the CEO, the conversion had thus far been semi-successful. A supervisor had been brought in to lead the company's overall conversion to electronics. She explained that her job description issued from the company was all-encompassing. She was to chart a technological course for them. The company had a pre-press department of 11 people, two of whom had been in electronic pre-press when she arrived. Two more had been converted to electronic stripping since her arrival. The company's productivity in the pre-press area had already doubled because of these changes.
Converted strippers. Conversations with two of the converted strippers revealed that they were positive about their new roles. Len had been with the company for 25 years. He indicated that the company was late in moving to electronics pre-press. When it finally decided to move, nobody knew where to start, so they hired a consultant in desktop publishing to train two veteran workers, including himself. Training occurred two days a week over a six-month period. Beyond the formal training, he indicated that he and the second worker had begun to work on actual jobs at their own initiative. They made mistakes, but they had learned. Len bought his own computer, took the manual home, and worked on it for "hours and hours and hours." There was pressure not to fail, not to cause the company to have second thoughts about hiring traditional workers.
When asked about traditional pre-press, he became nostalgic, indicating:
I still go back to the (light table) when they need it. I still have to go back to it. You feel comfortable there for one thing. You feel comfortable there but it's deep down inside. We just had this discussion this morning. It's deep down inside. If you do good work on the light table, you're going to do good work on the computer.
In his view, the new electronics procedures were very challenging, when one does something right.
A supervisor. One supervisor expressed candid fears and apprehensions about her lack of electronic knowledge. She confided, "They (workers) can understand me, but I don't always understand them. With the computer end of it, you know, I don't always know what is possible, or what's not possible..." She felt that there was a need to go back to school.
In her view, the technology did not respect people. At every level of the workplace hierarchy, people were forced to come to terms with their inadequacies as well as the need to upgrade their competence. Indeed, whole companies had to confront a learning curve. They had to re-learn their business. Not all would survive the effort.
Company E was established in 1977, with a workforce of 238 employees. The company produces deck card packs, a specialized niche in the printing industry. This company too was in the early stages of introducing computers into its pre-press operations. The pressure toward the new technologies was not as strong in this market niche, as in others, but that could change. The company wanted to be ahead of the curve. A manager explained that they were "dragging (their) customers to the digital age."
In expanding further into electronics, this company also had decided to attempt to convert some of its traditional strippers. Ten workers were chosen for such training based on computer literacy rather than on seniority. The chosen 10 were sent to a customized training course in electronics stripping which was administered by a technical college.
One of the selected workers spoke of the pressure to learn quickly. There was competition. "The faster we learn, the better we learn, the better our chances with the company. Because we are afraid to be left behind in the dust." A critique of the customized vocational classes was that they did not offer sample jobs from actual workplaces. Another critique was that the training was too narrowly focused.
Workers. The chosen workers felt privileged. However, they were also aware of some animosity from those who had not been selected. One traditional stripper in training felt that electronics had enhanced his work. He could do things much faster. He spoke of tensions engendered by the fact that seniority was not a factor in selection for retraining.
A second worker, though a veteran stripper, had an open mind about the new realities. His view was that, while knowledge of traditional stripping helped in the electronic stripping room, "it's always nice to get a fresh open mind of somebody coming in the ranks of printing...that doesn't have the mind filled with all the old methods." Traditional knowledge was knowledge to fall back upon. He revealed, though, that learning the computer had been traumatic.
At first I got a pit in my stomach and a lump in my throat because every day coming to work I used to feel completely at ease. I knew all areas of printing. I'd done this for 20 years. It's an uncomfortable situation at first. It took a couple of months, let's say. To think here I am at 50 and I'm completely turning around. I've got to start over at scratch with ABCs that took all these years to accomplish and now I'm going right back over. After a while I've lost that lump in my throat...I'm feeling it isn't really so hard. It's something I can tackle and accomplish.
Dana, a traditional stripper, who was not among the chosen 10, expressed the view that "challenge is going to go down the hill" the more the computer is involved. Stripping used to be challenging. There was complexity. "To me it's a puzzle. That's why I think computers are taking the fun out of it." "Puzzle" was one of the metaphors that was frequently employed throughout the interviews to characterize the complexity of traditional stripping.
Company F was founded in 1907, making it one of the oldest printing establishments in the state. It had a workforce of 385 employees. Similar to some of the other companies described above, this company had also chosen to retrain selected traditional strippers. This was being done on a "phased" basis. Workers were required to wait for their turn.
Interviews with four workers revealed that getting into the electronics pre-press area was the goal of most pre-press workers, not just strippers. The company had developed a clear training plan for those selected for conversion.
Workers. Company F was in the process of converting to Macintosh computers. Much of the training had been on the job. One worker explained, "I'm running the computer and charging up to half my time for training time." He had been provided with the option of charging any or all of his time, depending on his output of film. Prior to this on-the-job training phase, the company had sent him to training courses focused on the major software applications. In his view, electronics was "much more challenging" than conventional stripping. Indeed, he found that traditional stripping had become boring. He indicated that "it was pretty much the same thing: you'd cut the masks, and you registered your film and it got to be monotonous." He also expressed the view that the electronic mode was becoming easier. Programs were becoming easier, yielding greater production efficiency. He continued that there was constant teamwork, much cooperation with co-workers, constant communication with two to three operators.
The new environment was fun. All conventional strippers, "except for some of the oldtimers who are ready to retire," wanted to be converted to electronics. Conventional stripping was in decline. He explained:
Years ago you needed strippers who had 15 to 20 years experience. Now anyone can come and lay down film and the Mac will put it out. So now the stripping experience is not really needed here.
A supervisor. Charles was the supervisor of "pre-flighting." Pre-flighting, an airline metaphor, involves deciphering the computer files submitted by customers, prior to being transformed into film. This is the first stage of the computerized process. It is a critical stage. He was taught electronic stripping by a co-worker, followed by company-sponsored courses and practice on actual jobs. The company leadership was comfortable "if it takes you eight hours to do a two-hour job when you're learning." Now he had a training role in the company, helping other operators learn electronic stripping.
Synthesis and Brief Reflection on College Responses
The companies in this study had all accepted technological change in pre-press as an inevitability and had taken steps to transform their operations. They were impelled by some combination of the deterministic push of the new technologies and the need to be competitive. Whether they were also driven, as Braverman (1974) suggests, by the desire to wrest control of the labor process from workers, by marginalizing craft, can be contested.
On the one hand, this process of transformation was disruptive. The companies had departed from their relatively safe traditions of printing to venture into the competitive new world of electronic communications. This was a volatile world of rapid depreciation of capital and rapid obsolescence of techniques. As for workers, craft expertise had come to matter little. Traditional stripping had been denuded of the artistry, discretion, and opportunities for autonomy and individuality that had once made it challenging. Because craft per se no longer mattered, a whole class of workers had found themselves stripped of the basis of their legitimacy on the shop floor. A casualty of the disruption was shop floor culture which, to a considerable degree, was based on a hierarchy of skill and experience; formerly, newcomers had been apprenticed into their roles by elders. Currently, expert strippers had once again become novices, forfeiting their shop floor status. They were grappling with the apprehension of having to learn a new job skill, particularly when the consequences of inability could be job loss. Supervisors found themselves suddenly vulnerable, not being technologically literate. Skill had now taken on new meaning on the shop floor, characterized by the rationality that digitization brings. Much of what was formerly considered to be skill now seemed to reside in computers and software.
On the other hand, the change process also seemed to bring new possibilities. The computer presented challenges, opportunities for renewal. Some converted traditional strippers seemed enthused and energized by their new roles. They liked the unpredictability of the electronic version of stripping, of not knowing what would "turn up" on customer files. They liked the opportunities for problem-solving.
Resolution of the skill controversy becomes problematic since both winners and losers exist on account of new technology. Does technological change in pre-press represent a classic case of deskilling, consistent with Braverman's (1974) theory? In terms of what traditional stripping had lost, workers could argue compellingly (and some did) that the old job had been deskilled. For those workers who still performed traditional stripping, the differences between the new job requirements and the expectations of the past were indeed stark. But for those traditional workers who had converted to electronics, whether their circumstances constituted deskilling was not clear-cut. Some workers, who enjoyed the new work, remained sentimental about the challenges of the old job. Much depended on individual perception.
As discussed in the company cases, training played an important role in the transformation to electronic stripping since the companies, in varying degrees, had opted to convert traditional workers. Much of this training was "just-in-time," conducted quickly, often on-site, and under authentic conditions (for a fuller discussion of how companies dealt with the problem of training, see Lewis, 1996b). Only one of the six companies, Company E, had reached out to the technical colleges as a source of training. This, however, must not be viewed as an indictment of the vocational curriculum. The companies needed training modes that best suited workers already on the job. Again, digitized pre-press had come suddenly. Since the technologies were new to the firms, they were new to the colleges as well. Just as companies had been compelled to transform themselves, so too were the colleges. Industry will always lead vocational institutions in technology, due in part, to the costs associated with upgrading educational facilities. However, given the frenetic pace of technological change, companies are adopting new technologies much more rapidly than technical/vocational colleges can respond. This gap must be reduced. Educational institutions must become more proactive if they wish to be relevant.
As indicated above, the initial stages of this study involved observing technical college printing programs and conversing with college personnel about technological change. A general impression formulated during this process was that the colleges were searching for ways to respond. All four programs visited offered desktop publishing and administrators were attempting to get deeper into electronic pre-press processes. These changes were necessitating the purchase of new equipment, faculty retraining, and curriculum revision. One of the perplexing questions for these institutions had to do with how much of the old curriculum, if any, to retain. Should there be complete capitulation to digitization? All four colleges remained substantially tooled for traditional pre-press, even as they were engaged in the process of curricular change.
One of the colleges, the state leader in printing, had made substantial capital investments in establishing electronic publishing and color pre-press programs. Even in this situation, the faculty remained ambivalent about the extent to which they should walk away from their traditional pre-press courses, laboratories, and equipment. They were seeking advice from the advisory committees that were serving their printing programs. A letter of invitation to advisory committee members set forth their questions bluntly: (a) What do you want us to teach? (b) How do you want us to teach it, manually or on computers? and (c) How much time should we devote to each topic?
At three advisory council meetings that the researcher attended, committee members reviewed course materials for the entire printing program and proclaimed that much of it was now obsolete and irrelevant. They made it clear that it was no longer necessary to offer most of the traditional pre-press curriculum, except for historical purposes, or where skills transcended both manual and electronic stripping. The light table was deemed to be substantially an anachronism.
One issue that preoccupied the committee members was how to balance the specific skill needs of particular firms with the general skills that a graduate would need to be marketable across firms. Among the questions discussed were: With how many kinds of graphic software should the graduate be familiar? Should he/she know only the Macintosh computer? One general principle that they were able to agree upon was that all graduates should know how to work on the dominant machine of the industry (the Macintosh) and be proficient with dominant software, such as QuarkXpress.
Implications for the Vocational Curriculum
Clearly, those vocational institutions that wish to prepare students for pre-press careers must transform their curricula to make them relevant. But along what lines should they do this? What general principles should they apply? By whose version of the new realities in the workplace should they be guided, given that workers and managers may hold quite different stakes?
A recurring argument heard among traditional workers in varying degrees was that many of the old craft principles could transfer to the new electronic medium. This argument was made in all of the companies as evidenced by their willingness to invest in the retraining of traditionals. If it is true that many traditional skills have transfer effects, then it appears reasonable to believe that old ways of teaching printing may not be entirely irrelevant. But it also suggests a need to seek out those principles and concepts that transcend printing media. There are questions here that extend beyond printing that should be subjected to additional analysis and research. Whether hands-on ways of knowing in any way enhance knowing in the realm of electronic representation is an interesting puzzle.
One difference between traditional craft and the new digitized forms is that while the former had remained relatively static, the latter is dynamic and constantly changing. The software continues to evolve, as do the machines. How then does the curriculum stay current? Is the solution merely to chase after the latest technology? Preparation for change has practical limits and challenges, such as limitation of cost. The age-old problem for vocational institutions is the inability to afford the capital equipment of industry.
One solution that could be used to address the dual problems associated with equipment cost and perpetual change is for the vocational curriculum to be extended to include internship or apprenticeship experiences in actual workplaces. To accomplish this, industries would need to become partners in the vocational enterprise in even more fundamental ways than they now do. Based on this study, one additional reason why partnerships of this type should be nurtured is that companies have shown themselves to be quite resourceful and flexible in conceiving creative ways of training their employees in the use of new technologies. It is also important to note that with industry as a partner, the problem of curricular relevance is substantially solved. Vocational curriculum developers are then able to focus on the challenge of identifying and addressing the enduring aspects of the core subject matter. The assumption here is that each field has its basic essence, that part of it that remains, while the rest of it changes (Schwab, 1962). This is the problem that confronted Hirsch (1988) as he contemplated what should be the core of cultural literacy; that is, content that everyone should know. How does one deal with transient knowledge? In an attempt to solve this problem, Gagel (1995) conceived a change model that allows for a center of "universal knowledge," with allowances for "elapsing knowledge" and "emerging knowledge." This is an interesting prospect that appears to anticipate the problem of constructing curriculum in the face of technological change.
Vocational institutions have an important role to play in preparing workers for technological change. A key assumption of this study has been that schools will be better equipped to play this role if the impact of technology upon workplaces (work and jobs) is deeply understood. The cases here have illustrated that technological change is complex, requiring a deep understanding of skill in its many meanings. Technocratic conceptions of skill and technological change are insufficient. Other critical considerations include: (a) political, relating to the power relations between management and workers; (b) sociological, relating to hierarchy and status on the shop floor; (c) psychological, in the realm of self esteem, where fear and apprehension prevail; and (d) economic, as companies take risks and workers find their jobs threatened. To the extent that these complexities are understood and considered, vocational curriculum development becomes more than a technocratic enterprise.
Lewis is Associate Professor in the Department of Vocational and Technical Education, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Reference Citation: Lewis, T (1996). Impact of technology on work and jobs in the printing industry, Implications for vocational curriculum. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education, 34(2), 7-28.