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Prospects for the upskilling of general workers in Britain : a case study comparison of the English and Irish dairy processing industries

By Enda James Hannon


While there is strong evidence that longstanding systemic weaknesses in the British\ud economy continue to lead to negative strategic, skills and employment outcomes across\ud much of British industry, there has in recent years been a notable lack of empirical research\ud in the skills and employment relations fields aimed at examining the potential for upskilling\ud or 'employment upgrading' to be achieved for general workers. It is apparent that issues of\ud political economy and in particular the relationship between institutional contexts,\ud competitive performance and skills/employment outcomes at sector level have been largely\ud neglected.\ud This thesis seeks to partly fill this gap by presenting data from a comparative case study of\ud the English and Irish dairy processing industries, the central focus of which was an\ud examination of the consequences for company strategies, employee skills, employment and\ud wage levels of the overriding emphasis on the promotion of competition and efficiency and\ud the lack of a strong industrial policy in the former, and in contrast the existence of a strategic\ud and resource intensive industrial policy in the latter. This research provides an ideal\ud opportunity to address two issues of current theoretical concern, namely the potential for an\ud industrial policy to facilitate upskilling and debates regarding the advantages and\ud disadvantages of different 'varieties of capitalism'.\ud In general terms, the industrial policy context in England was found to inhibit investment in\ud product development and in particular moves by processors in to higher value, advanced\ud market niches, with negative consequences for employee skills and comparatively low wages\ud resulting. However these outcomes were to some extent mitigated by the presence in the UK\ud industry of a number of high-investing foreign multinationals who undertook very\ud substantial new product development, thereby facilitating some notable upskilling for\ud production workers.\ud In Ireland, while significant limitations in both the nature and extent of impact were\ud identified, the 'benign' industrial policy context was found to support processors in moving\ud into advanced product markets, and consequently underpinned the creation of substantial\ud opportunities for upskilling alongside a high standard of living for production operatives.\ud However skills outcomes at workplace level were found to be heavily contingent on a\ud number of different factors, with upskilling not found to be either an automatic or likely\ud consequence of a move up market. In addition, the fact that vocational training in the\ud industry continued to be of a predominantly informal, on-the-job nature was found to create\ud significant tensions and lead to dissatisfaction on the part of production operatives.\ud This research demonstrates the general value of the adoption of a supportive/strategic\ud industrial policy in terms of the potentially positive consequences resulting for strategy,\ud skills and employment outcomes. However it also highlights how the potential of such a\ud policy to facilitate upskilling is limited, being heavily influenced/determined by the\ud structural makeup and key characteristics and trends within particular sectors and product\ud markets. In addition, the need to address broader systemic issues relating to work\ud organisation, the labour process and the nature of vocational training systems is emphasised.\ud More broadly, the findings highlight the problematic nature of the central theoretical\ud conclusion and policy recommendation from the varieties of capitalism literature, that liberal\ud market economies like the UK should accentuate the deregulated/fluid nature of capital,\ud labour and product markets and focus attention on activities/sectors dominated by 'radical'\ud as opposed to 'incremental' innovation; and in contrast arguably demonstrate the need for\ud and potential of the development of thick institutional structures and substantial industry\ud support measures, even in 'traditional' sectors such as dairy

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