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Skill at work: ideas about skill and their impact on occupational associations in Australia, c.1879-1920




Bell, Jennifer

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This thesis attempts to relate the behaviour and policy of occupational associations to skill, skill hierarchies, and ideas about skill through historical analyses of two organisations, the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union and the Victorian Institute of Engineers. It is broadly set within the framework of rational choice theory. Consideration of previous literature on the nature and existence of workforce skill led to the conclusion that a study of the relationship between ideas about skill and behaviour would be more fruitful than a study of skill itself. An analysis of the history of apprenticeship is provided as a context for the constraints within which such ideas were formed, as well as for its usefulness in illustrating the fact that definitions of skill alter and are subject to constant redefinition and battles for control. The Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union (VOBU) was formed in 1879, when factory production was taking over the old craft of bootmaking. Its members sought to promote a policy whereby the journeyman bootmaker's independence, his reward for skill, could be exercised within the new constraints of factory production. Independence came to be seen as hinging on the maintenance of piecework, a relic of the pre-factory days; and union policy on outwork, apprenticeship, and eligibility for membership was directed to maintaining that independence. The battle to maintain piecework had taken the VOBU from the Wages Boards to the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court, where the drive to protect independence came to rely on the provision of fair wage rates and compulsory apprenticeship. The federal union formed to take the case to the Conciliation and Arbitration Court went on to become a strong and powerful organisation, which is still in existence today. The Victorian Institute of Engineers (VIE) was formed in 1883, primiarily by mechanical engineers. It later became a general association catering for all but mining engineers. Mechanical engineering was a new occupation which drew its traditions and its personnel from the different fields of the mechanic/millwright and the civil engineer. These mixed origins, and the lack of firmly identifiable traditions, led to confusion about the status and identity of mechanical engineers. This confusion was reflected in VIE policy on the education and training of mechanical engineers, and reached a crisis when an explicitly professional engineering body was formed in 1920. The main factor in VIE policy had been a belief in the importance of practical skill for mechanical engineers, but in other respects they were torn between the two ideals of skilled craftsmanship and professionalism. Eventually their rejection of official professionalism led to a split in the Institute, with the mechanical engineers clinging to a dying organisation while the civil engineers formed the basis of the successful Institution of Engineers, Australia. I argue that the policies and behaviour of both these very different organisations are explicable if we look at their members' ideas about skill, and the way they acquired those ideas.






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