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More than a 'humpty dumpty word' : an exploration of the status of soft skills

Scholarios, Dora and Scott, Hurrell and Thompson, Paul (2009) More than a 'humpty dumpty word' : an exploration of the status of soft skills. In: 27th International Labour Process Conference, 2009-04-06 - 2009-04-08. (Unpublished)

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The nature of skills – their formation and utilisation – has been one of the core issues of labour process research. Though debates continue about the exact pattern of skills, such research has been consistent in its scepticism towards generalised claims about upskilling and the tendency to rely on proxies instead of practices as measures (Warhurst and Thompson 2006). These relative certainties have, to an extent, implicitly relied on assumptions that we know what skill is and is not. When the original Braverman-inspired ‘deskilling debate’ took place, the template, was that skills were associated with trades, with all their implications for technical knowledge, job controls and training. Though by no means tied to craft work, Thompson’s oft-quoted definition of skill as ‘knowledgeable practice within elements of control’ (1983, 92) reflects some those themes. As the economy has changed towards a service-based occupational structure, such certainties and templates have become progressively more open to question. One of the most contentious issues is that of ‘soft skills’ and whether or not such skills are actually worthy of the ‘skilled’ label. Unusually, the issue of whether or not these constitute skills has sharply divided researchers at this conference. This paper begins by examining some of those differences, before exploring them in the context of recent research by one of the authors (Hurrell, 2009).