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The problem with internships is the number of them that are bogus. An internship is not a job nor is it work experience. Because of abuse and access it needs to be regulated and policed.

When the much maligned Jobsbridge scheme began in Ireland it was a vehicle both to encourage firms to offer internships and to stamp out abuse. Predictably, sections of the Irish left went off at half cock, lumped internship in with its abuses, and sought to bring the whole thing down rather than take a progressive stand, insist on rigorous weeding out of abuse and the involvement of working class young people in elusive internships.

Let’s face it: there is elitism in the concept of an intern. You see, there cannot possibly be an internship in a low or medium skilled job environment. That is to say, an intern on the floor of a supermarket or among forklift drivers is ridiculous and if it seems to appear, it is very clearly the contrivance of an exploitative chancer. An internship is a training programme in a – for want of a better word – professional work environment. The intern may perform some useful tasks but in no real sense are they employed or working. It most certainly is not work experience. Work experience programmes are real, useful and are not training; they are as the term perfectly describes.

So many bogus internships now exist that there are moves to stamp out the whole concept, to finish off what the opponents of Jobsbridge started. Yes, this course if successful will strike against exploitation but it will also abolish internships for those without family contacts and send internship into a priviliged underground with arrangements being made by Mammy and Daddy with their professional and business friends.

What is needed is a state supervised scheme in which all internships are required to be registered, and well intentioned businesses and other organisations are encouraged to participate. There are many such organisations and many people prepared to offer an internship – a real one – to a young person without family contacts. They’d be performing a public service, not creating a job. All but the chancer know the difference and when the chancer tries it on, the penalty should be swift and severe.

A state-supervised scheme, recognising and expanding access to internships? Sounds good, eh? But wait, we had the makings of that and we allowed an idiot fringe to destroy it, playing as usual into the hands of the rich and privileged.

 

* https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/una-mullally-unpaid-internships-threaten-all-workers-1.3572883#.W1VyGTlofWw.twitter

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There’s a very longtime acquintance of mine, a man I admire. I know him through the Labour Party. He’s dependable, thoughtful, well read, a retired industrial worker and experienced shop steward. He’s more than a pollster’s or a sociologist’s category; he’s real working class and holds the values to prove it. He’s a socialist; he and the Labour Party are a natural fit but there’s something wrong these days.

I bumped into him in town recently. He’s great company and I was glad he suggested a pint.

He was bothered and thoughtful about a meeting he’d attended the previous evening. He feels left out and odd at party meetings. The discussions, he says, are too confined to gender, identity, management and liberal issues generally and when they refer to work and trade unionism, they go on about organising as if nothing much had happened in the last 30 years or so. (As for me, he says that I’m not much better, always on about inequality of income, republican citizenship, and the type of work – jobs – that he doesn’t recognise.)

He has no difficulty with any of the liberal, cultural, identity issues. They’ve always been there – part of the movement – and he’s always taken the progressive position. No, the problem is what has disappeared, and disappeared to the extent that he now seldom speaks at meetings because the things of his concern, expertise and experience don’t appear on agendas anymore.

There is no industry and industrial worker that he recognises, no factories. Yes, he would like a return to that way of life, when there was stability and the expectation that the next generation would come up a bit in the world. He is not, however, like those duped by Trump; he knows those jobs are now in low-pay countries or gone forever, designed and automated out of existence, no longer necessary.

What can I possibly say to him? We’re both working class and know the score. He took a route that ended in redundancy in his early fifties and apartment blocks on his factory site that once nurtured a whole community. I didn’t take a route at all, I just drifted, did alright and now talk about the changed world but without his profound sense of loss.

When we meet, we have two areas of common ground. Firstly, agreement that the trickle down economy with well paid, permanent, satisfying jobs is gone. What we have now is a small number of high-expertise jobs at the top end, a lot of low-skilled, poorly-paid, boring, insecure jobs at the other end and in the middle, yes, some – but not many – old-school, good jobs with new titles. It is a different expression of capitalism, of exploitation and of yawning inequality. It is a loss about which the party seldom, if ever, talks and in that silence ignores “old-Labour”, those who planned prudently for upward mobility. While patronising attention is often paid to the “left behind”, little consideration is given to those whose plans and aspirations have been thwarted by a change that has made jobs befitting their hard-won education very scarce indeed.* 

He likes and I like too Jack O’Connor’s and other trades unionists’ approach to improving standards, security and wages by way of labour reforms and collective bargaining but that doesn’t speak openly about the fact that so many good jobs are gone for good and what that means for society and socialism. It’s a hard position for a party that has so linked work and prosperity but that’s the very reason Labour cannot credibly avoid it. Discussing traditional labour responses to the new situation without regard to how we deal with the loss is a drift away from socialism. The most fundamental change in industrial society cannot be ignored.

Secondly, he can’t stand it when gougers are described as working class. He gets apoplectic over the screaming, foul-mouthed thuggery – some of it lead by upper class nits – that is too often presented as working class. He expects the Labour Party to talk about the working class. Like me, he sees his class as setting a standard for decent behaviour.** I express that a bit differently: that working class is characterised by a set of values and that is what Marx saw when he identified the agents of progress. ***

This is where our recent conversation got really interesting, agreed and controversial. What we edged close to was a sense that the Labour Party needs to help take back the meaning of working class, get it back from pollsters, patronising professionals and upper class dilletantes, and state it as a set of values. That’s not vague; it’s quite clear and most know exactly what we’re on about. Yes of course, it would take a book-length piece to spell out the markers of working class membership, to contrast it with markers of lumpen loutishness, and to tie the difference to a political programme but perhaps that’s not necessary. For now let’s just set down opposites – streotypes, if you like – and leave it at that because in truth anyone steeped in the labour movement knows the difference only too well but is normally too polite to draw attention to it.

A working class kid is reared neither to look up to nor down on anyone and never, ever to resort to crude abuse – and here’s a small, sharp identifier, an easy way to tell the difference these days: there is no chance whatsover that they would refer to someone as a “c*nt”.


Grave offence is taken when media label such conduct and abuse as working class. 


It’s time the Labour Party spoke up for the working class to prevent it being traduced by the media and to prevent its record, good name and historic role being tarnished by lumpen yobs.

 

 

 

* https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/12/17/full-employment-in-this-century-will-be-different-as-work-befitting-educated-skilled-workers-grows-scarce/

** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2017/07/31/working-class-has-meaning-it-should-not-be-twisted-misappropriated-or-trivialised/

*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/no-karl-marx-was-not-out-of-his-mind/

A joke doing the rounds way back in the 1970s went like this*: The CEO of a car manufacturing plant was showing off his new assembly robots to a trade union official, “You’ll never organise them!”, he boasted. “And, you’ll never sell them a car!”, replied the trade unionist. Funny and true. So, we’ve been aware of the direction of production, work and capitalism for a long time. However, until very recently it was difficult to get people to pay attention. Even now it is probable that a majority would prefer to argue and make policy as if it were still the hey day of industrial capitalism and industrial workers. It may be that the significance of I.T. is lost on them but it could be that they are unwilling to change familiar, comfortable ways of thinking.


A long-standing trio is crumbling because the productivity of today’s technology i) undermines the working of industrial capitalism, ii) undermines state welfare systems designed to ameliorate the effects of unemployment and iii) requires socialists to rethink their basics.

The best way into the heart of the question is via Marx. (Yannis Varoufakis has been on about it recently.) It goes like this: it is labour that creates ‘value’. Work is the core; it transforms raw material into useful products.

In steps capitalism. Profit emerges in selling products but obviously selling relies on buyers. Bluntly, the supply of products makes no sense without demand. Demand depends on money moving about – circulating – but that in turn depends on people having incomes. Traditionally this has meant jobs paying wages and salaries.

It’s hardly surprising then that the history of industrialisation is punctuated by workers resisting new productive technology. The purpose of new industrial technology is to reduce the amount of labour necessary to produce the goods. In short, its purpose is to do away with jobs.

Of course there was a time when it wasn’t as simple as that because growth and new technology created other jobs, lots of them, with titles that would have meant nothing a few years earlier. Moreover, the new jobs tended to be dry, clean, quite well paid and prestigous. By the 1960s and 70s “ordinary workers” were not defying death by going to work but were relatively comfortable, educated, healthy, ambitious and many were buying houses. Certainly there were still dreadful jobs and piecework remained a curse but there was hope.

The hope rested on the unfounded belief that things could only get better, that because a generation was better off than the preceding one, it was now to be expected for succeeding generations, that education and a job meant comfort and a fulfilling life, and that the state would provide in the event of a life-changing catastrophe or a period of unemployment. Okay there were still fatcats, privilege and exploitation but overall the majority found the “trickle down” argument plausible.**

Things are different now. Forty years of neo-liberal economics coupled with IT development have produced a society in which ordinary workers cannot buy houses, cannot assume that they’ll be better off than their parents, cannot assume that a good background and education will lead to a satisfying career. There are baristas and carers with PhDs. There are people living hand to mouth on piecework which we choose to call the gig economy. There are people employed but living in poverty, dependent on welfare just to keep going. This isn’t part of an economic cycle. Those good jobs which made the mass of people prosperous are no longer required; they’re gone.

The naive response would be to cite capitalism for screwing down incomes. Sure, there are rich chancers making money by exploiting vulnerable people but there is more to this and a naive left response is much worse than useless.

The reality is that productive technology has reduced the cost of doing the bulk of those good jobs to zero; no labour is required to do the jobs that so many people thought were their future. Some of course do exist but work has been moving upmarket and downmarket, evacuating the middle. The need now is for high level expertise and for unskilled and semi-skilled workers. The process is in its infancy but these days the likes of doctors, accountants and drivers of all sorts find they are reading more and more about artificial intelligence – the latest manifestation of productive technology – and they are worried.

Here’s the thing: At some stage in this process capitalism becomes pointless. As technology – artificial intelligence – reduces to zero the labour required for most production, the owners of the means of production increasingly come face to face with the new reality. It dawns on them that they cannot realise value as profit. This is the end stage foretold in the 1970s joke and unless capitalism – or rather industrial capitalism – can find a way to accommodate the new order, it faces an existential threat.

Some years ago it was argued that the industrial jobs still existed but globalisation had allowed them to be moved to low wage economies. That did happen and it remains the case that where wages are sufficiently depressed, labour is cheaper than machines but machines today are utterly effective and efficient, and there’s a greater proportion of software as opposed to hardware production.

The welfare state whose mission for decades was to support capitalism by dealing with unemployment – paying workers temporarily unemployed, providing training, retraining and education to serve industry, providing all sorts of aid to investment – has to confront a fundamentally different problem: a shortage not of educated, skilled workers but a shortage of work befitting them. States and governments, having created an educated workforce and having made job creation a measure of success, are resisting change. Indeed for the most part they are doing as they’ve done for decades because the change required is as yet inconceivable.

While the modern liberal state finds it hard to adapt, many socialists – so theoretically and emotionally bound up with labour, the working class and jobs – may find it next to impossible. However, adapt they must because otherwise there will be no plausible counter to today’s and tomorrow’s forms of exploitation and structure of inequality.

In Ireland unemployment is at about 6% and the trend is downward. Allowing for those who don’t want a job, those who are between jobs etc., it will be said at about 3% that full employment has been reached. Even among socialists it is often still believed that a job is the best route out of poverty. Now, it may be the best available route but clearly it is not anything like a guaranteed route. This is because – yes, again – those mid 20th century rewarding jobs are gone and the 6 – 3% unemployment figure is achieved largely through the expansion in poorly paid, insecure, unattractive jobs.

Socialists and Trade Unionists will try to secure better pay, conditions and security for these workers but they cannot change the nature of the work itself. The work is what is left after the present generation of automation.

Already it is frequently argued that there is no point in educating masses of people for non existent jobs, that higher education should be concentrated on a smaller elite and that money saved would be better spent on training. Now, this is precisely what should be done if the purpose of the state and particularly education is to create workers for the jobs available. However, when meaningful work for the masses cannot be created, then leftists must demand that the purpose of the state change. Such a demand depends on an enormous change in the thinking of socialists because no matter who owns and controls the means of production, one thing is clear: machines, automation, I.T., artificial intelligence cannot be uninvented.

To be at all plausible socialist argument and policy must address not 19th or 20th century capitalism but today’s iteration.

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* https://www.robotics.org/blog-article.cfm/The-History-of-Robotics-in-the-Automotive-Industry/24

** https://www.thebalance.com/trickle-down-economics-theory-effect-does-it-work-3305572

The list of things which well-meaning people have suggested should be added to the school curriculum is endless. Karlin Lillington, a very good tech. journalist, has argued in The Irish Times Business and Technology supplement (March 28th 2013) that coding be taught at school.* The thesis is that since many companies have started with the lone, self-taught coder, having a mass of people able to code would prompt business start-ups and would make many young people ready to take up employment in the tech. sector.

On the face of it, it seems an attractive idea but – and surprisingly from someone like Karlin Lillington – it is strangely outdated and out of touch with the reality of work today.

Two of the central planks supporting the argument are very weak. Firstly, while it is very likely that those who started and built a business on their inventive coding were at it from age 14 or younger, that observation has a familiar ring because it is made regularly about all manner of industry. Media regularly carry anecdotes about business people being enterprising from a very early age and these reports are often linked to a demand that business and enterprise appear on the school curriculum.

Secondly, there is nothing to indicate that anything like the majority of jobs in the tech. sector call for coding skills. A cursory examination of the recruitment sections on the websites of the large tech. companies reveals an interesting research project. Some of these companies recruit some coders, some recruit none. All, however, require competence in operating the new technology and in the ways of working that the technology has created. Indeed it might be argued that the belief that coding skills should be universal rests on a simple misunderstanding around the term “tech. industries”.**

Aside from the basics of the argument, Karlin may be getting too close to the technology and paying insufficient attention to its effects. “Today’s children,” she says, “will graduate into an overwhelmingly digital world, where daily life is immersed in code.” That’s simply untrue and misunderstands mass use of digital devices and media. Most young people don’t understand the word “digital” and think it means “modern” or even “cool”. Their life is not immersed in code; they are unaware of the code running their devices. Their playful indifference to matters technological, coupled with ease of use, may even obscure something that flies in the face of the thoughtless consensus that “the kids are great with the computers!” At the heart of the error is the observation that children and young people generally use computer devices almost constantly. They seem to be very comfortable with them and they learn to use new devices and apps quickly. To complete the myth there’s an endless supply of old duffers prepared to feed the stereotype that is the older person, unable to adapt and acquire the skills to operate these new gadgets. The truth is that technology always develops from specialist to mass or domestic use. In the 1970s a basic video recorder was analogue, huge, expensive, confined to TV companies and required a skilled operator. Similarly, there was a time – and it is a long time ago now – when expertise was needed to do anything on a computer. Nowadays little or no skill is required for many uses.

Those young people who appear so computer savvy for the most part are doing little that is creative or clever.*** It is true that being inventive and developing new apps etc. requires skill but that kind of activity is rare. The difficulty is that not only do the majority of young people make little creative or intellectual use of the technology but they generally lack the skills to go beyond social media and games or even to maximise the potential. Imagine years ago if someone had admired a young person for being able to operate a television set! Well, admiring a young person for being constantly and comfortably on-line is almost as daft. It is also patronising.

There is a final theme in Karlin’s piece. It seems reasonable to suggest that coding skills would teach people how to think. There certainly is a need to teach young people to analyse, criticise, organise, solve problems and present their findings/arguments. However, teaching coding skills with this end in mind would be very restrictive and conservative. It would be a poor substitute for logic or philosophy more generally.

There needs to be a hard look at the easy assumptions that lead to demands for more and more training as opposed to education in schools. It was always the case that schooling needed to be general. Schools needed to produce people who could make their way in the world as both citizens and as workers. What technology has done is to emphasise this need. Put aside for now the making of decent, socialised people and of citizens prepared and able to participate in a republic. Those looking to serve the “jobs market” by reforming the education of children need to look more closely at the jobs.

It is absolutely certain that science and engineering specialists are required but there are two other things which are equally certain and they have been created by the technology at the heart of this discussion. Firstly, it is certain that aside from the most menial of jobs, there is now no employment in the developed world for the unskilled and uneducated. Secondly, outside of technical skills the world of work today calls for the generalist, someone who is adept with information, someone who can research, argue and present. These of course rest on literacy, numeracy and a great deal of general knowledge.**** In the short to medium term there is a demand for a second and third language.

There really is no place in the office (or at home or abroad linked to the office) for someone unable to speak and to write fluently and well, for someone unable to research independently, for someone without general knowledge and for someone with no grasp of mathematics, science and technology.

When thinking about the reform of education, it is a mistake to fall back on the centuries old division between humanities and science. It is a mistake too to emphasise training over education. These are not mistakes purely in terms of concerns that teaching should lead to the enjoyment of a full life. These are now mistakes in terms of serving industry.*****

If Karlin were to look around the office at the Irish Times and see what is actually being done and who does it best, and then travel to the tech. companies around Dublin, look again and perhaps sit in on a few routine meetings, she would see that teaching skills – other than literacy and numeracy – to children is a very outdated notion.

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* http://www.irishtimes.com/business/sectors/technology/net-results-digital-economy-begins-with-teaching-kids-coding-1.1340843
** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2013/02/11/could-inaccurate-use-of-the-term-tech-sector-be-misguiding-education-policy/
*** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2012/09/05/republican-citizens-on-facebook-need-to-choose-their-friends-deliberately/
**** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/09/27/the-smart-economy-and-technologys-democratic-vector/
***** https://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/05/26/increased-emphasis-on-vocational-education-is-a-pretty-bad-idea-now/

I was posting over at Ferdinand von Prondzynski’s blog   ( http://universitydiary.wordpress.com/) when I thought that I should make the point on my own blog. Ferdinand was saying in support of changing university education that, “we simply cannot run a university system that now admits a large percentage of the population as if we were running small elite institutions. The elite students of former times generally had very un-specific expectations of their education. For them it was all part of assuming the knowledge and the style of privilege, not about undergoing specific vocational training.” I disagreed. Of course increased numbers and different times mean change but the whole purpose of increased access is to make higher learning available to all who can benefit. Moreover, that’s what the world of work now requires.

More vocational training rather than education is the demand of people – including students – who fail to appreciate what has happened to work and yet are aware that too many graduates complete their education lacking important skills.

The “information society” has consequences for university education. As a term, it is often reduced to meaningless guff but it should not be dismissed by thoughtful people. In careless use it becomes fused with “knowledge society” and provides a justification for a pretty daft approach to education: an increased emphasis on mere training for the majority and an increase in the number of PhDs. I don’t want to talk right now about the latter but training in preference to education is precisely what, let’s call it, industry doesn’t need right now.

Anyone who has given serious thought to the concept of an “information society” either from a political or a business perspective realises pretty quickly that such a society depends not merely on skilled people but on educated, thinking, and – yes – innovative people. In short, the humanities graduate’s time has come! (I recall commenting during a discussion with a group of lecturers that innovation is what separates a 2.1 from a 2.2.)

There are however “employability” problems with some graduates and the problems have nothing to do with the traditional university approach to learning. Too many students lack the skills necessary to making the best use of their education. Too many are not fully literate, cannot cope with the mathematics essential to a full life today, have no real understanding of technology or economics, have poor general knowledge and cannot present themselves or their work in public. These are mere skills and could never figure in a university education. However, it should not be possible to achieve the status of graduate without these skills. They are essential and they should be mastered while in primary and secondary school. Most lecturers are aware of the literacy and the general knowledge problem. Many may be aware that perhaps the majority of students are poor communicators and that work today demands effective participation at meetings and making presentations. Some lecturers may not have noticed the mathematics problem. What do I mean by this? Here are a few examples that I’ve come across. Students frequently have no grasp of the magnitude of numbers. They would find the creation of mathematical expressions for, say, a spreadsheet very difficult. The concept of random distribution would be new to them. I won’t labour this on into basic science, technology and economics. The point is that today effective citizenship – never mind a job – requires these skills. While someone without them should not be at university, most certainly a graduate must have them.

A university is not the place for teaching skills. However, until such time as the rest of the educational system addresses the problem, universities in order to maintain standards and credibility should test for them. There can be no question of awarding grades, let alone making it part of the degree programme. This is about finding competence; it is pass or fail. I realize that suggesting such tests – and I’m not talking about labour intensive exams. – seems impractical or extreme for institutes of higher learning but I can’t come up with another short term remedy.