Who Gains from
BY NANCY S. JACKSON
Over the last decade, national, provincial and local women's groups in Canada have fought to secure a fair deal for women in post-secondary education, particularly in adult education and training. The issue of access (to both traditional and nontraditional areas of instruction) has dominated these efforts to date, because the blatantly discriminatory exclusion of women has contributed to the continuing economic disadvantage and dependence of many Canadian women. But the struggle will not be over even if we are successful in our demands for equal access. Current changes in the learning environment itself pose a different kind of threat to women's interests. Skill training is being reorganized to serve more closely the short-term interests of employers, potentially impoverishing the contents of the vocational knowledge transmitted and separating the skills from the power and status of the workers. These widespread developments should be of particular concern to feminists who see education and training as a means of improving the economic status of women. I will begin my discussion with a critical look at the current use of terms like "skill" and "competence".
In recent years, the concept of skill has come to dominate the popular understanding of education. "Skill" has become both a metaphor for the total output of all our institutions of learning and a standard by which they should be judged. It has overtones of status, representing the knowledgeable and the scientific, and lends an aura of authority to whatever falls in its shadow. Furthermore, it implies that innovation in education is needed because of economic circumstances, and that all have a common stake in the outcome. The conventional concern with matching demand and supply of skills is being replaced by an interest in the way occupational skills are organized and produced. Historical forms of organization and control which make skill a property of the worker, (of which apprenticeships are the most common example) have come to be seen as a limitation on the prerogative of employers to use labour power according to their own interests. As a result, concepts of craft mastery are being replaced by a new logic of skill which gives the employer more control over the organization of knowledge and skills on the job, and thus more flexibility in the deployment of labour. This flexibility is a key objective among those who support change in the structure of vocational and technical programs. 1