Does learning still ‘equal earning’ in the global knowledge economy?


It has been generally assumed that, in developed economies like the UK, an increasing demand for highly skilled workers would remain central to competitive advantage and to securing economic position in world terms. This ‘human capital’ view has been the driving force behind a great deal of economic and educational policy.

In a unique series of linked research projects running from the late 1990s to the present, Professor Phillip Brown FAcSS of Cardiff University and Professor Hugh Lauder FAcSS of the University of Bath, are examining the role of transnational companies and the skills strategies of emerging economies in reshaping the global economy. They are also investigating the implications of these trends for higher education, talent management, high-skilled work, and national skills formation policies, across several major countries. They found that the widespread ‘human capital’ view greatly underestimates the nature and extent of the engagement of emerging economies with high-skilled work.

The competitive advantage associated with a highly skilled workforce is declining, due to a rapid doubling in the global supply of college and university-educated labour, especially in China.

They also found that the very nature of knowledge work is itself changing, aided by new technologies.Their research shows how companies at the turn of the twenty- first century started experimenting with new innovative approaches to job design in knowledge-intensive industries. Rather than rely on an expanding proportion of knowledge workers doing the thinking for the organisation, companies are using new technologies to capture areas of technical, professional and managerial knowledge in the form of algorithms and digital software. Because this echoes industrial-era changes to work, like those described and advocated in the early twentieth century by Frederick Winslow Taylor, Brown and Lauder call this process Digital Taylorism.

This work helps us understand why and how ‘graduate jobs’ are changing, and it challenges simple concepts of career progression based on merit. It offers unparalleled insights based on over 500 face-to-face corporate and policy interviews, with far-reaching implications for economic, education and skills policy. The researchers have worked with UK government Select Committees, with a UK Commission for Employment and Skills, as well as through articles in the national press and contributions to reports with wide circulation in Westminster. Further afield, the research has contributed directly to deliberations and policy formation in the World Bank, International Labour Office, the World Universities Forum, the Singapore government, and several European Union organisations. The Global Auction, a key book from the research, has been translated into Chinese and Korean.


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