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La Educación
Número: (123-125) I,III
Año: 1996

Reforming the System

A review of the reform programs designed to address these difficulties in technical education shows that they tended to be financed and executed through the cooperation of international organizations.2 The programs introduced a trend toward the diversification of secondary education, to correspond with increasing social and technical division of labor. They did not, however, fundamentally alter the curriculum, the abilities of instructors, the physical plant or the socioeconomic background of the students.3 Although the “academic” secondary education system came to include a few elements of craft training, a parallel technical education system persisted. At the same time, the system never successfully addressed two important problems: it did not extend its coverage to young people outside the formal educational system, and it never overcame the gender division between technical occupations.

And now, Latin American governments are beginning again to reform technical education, convinced as they are that these programs are not preparing a suitable labor force. The existence of technical education systems separate from academic secondary education, as well as their subordinate financing status, has been a reflection of a particular state of technological advance and social organization during a specific period of economic history. Taylorist forms of production organization and hierarchies that separated manual from mental labor were reproduced by this dual educational system. At the same time, technology was not yet so advanced in industry that specialized craft knowledge had been completely stripped from the execution of tasks. Workers in a world of import substitution, then, needed not only some form of secondary education but also relatively protracted skills training.

For manual labor, acquisition of a skill was required, and this presupposed a degree of specialized knowledge coupled with a manual dexterity developed for a particular production purpose.

To a large extent, this division of labor has been changed by technological advance in the formal production sector, but not in the way that is usually assumed. Rather than requiring more highly skilled and educated workers to manage and maintain more sophisticated production schedules and tasks, we argue that state-of-the-art technology tends to require fewer highly skilled workers per unit of production, and in the end, fewer workers at any skill level at all.

In workplaces where technology is advancing most rapidly, skilled manual tasks tend to be dis-integrated into increasingly routine, repetitive operations that do not require either lengthy practical experience or a secondary education to master. Consider the literature about competency-based training, for example. Training is based on task analysis, or the science of fragmenting complex objectives into simpler ones. Modules of tasks are packaged into short-courses for “skills” training, which may vary from four weeks to six months. Each module constitutes a training program for one entry-level job. Sometimes, several modules may be consolidated and learned by a single person, who then claims higher-level qualifications, but who is, of course, interchangeable with other workers who have trained on the same module or modules.

Therefore, the traditional technical education of several years duration represents an investment of time and money that cannot be redeemed by the investor (whether this is the enterprise, the individual or the State) upon entry into the labor force.4 For many, the long celebrated “of skill” has come at last through the technological capability to mass produce highly specialized goods. The industrial manufacture of these goods through increasingly fragmented lower-skilled processes has replaced production techniques which only a short time ago required human finesse, either in terms of manual dexterity, specialized knowledge, physical strength, or all of these together.

In an earlier technological generation, for example, an automobile mechanic required specialized knowledge about particular cars and the way they function. For automobiles manufactured in the past five years, however, electronic equipment will diagnose a mechanical failure, so that one mechanic can now do the work of three or four. The same is true in the health care field for ailing humans. In both cases, a skilled worker must interpret test results and recommend repairs, but more and more, the truly complex analytical work will be done by a machine. The sphere within which the workers’ mental facilities are useful becomes increasingly restricted.

This has important implications for the reform of technical education, and for academic educational reform, itself. At the same time that popular demand for secondary education is growing in Latin America, the labor market demand for workers with secondary education is shrinking. This is occurring not only because of technological advance in general, but also because of the shift from national economies based on import substitution to open economies in a new international division of labor. The emerging division of labor, of course, tends to relegate to Latin America mass production based on low skilled labor, as well as highly mechanized agricultural and extractive production for export.5

The realities of the changing labor market pose questions of political orientation in the face of potentially far-reaching educational reforms. How is mass education to be structured beyond the primary level? How will democratic governments respond to growing popular demand for better and longer education, and shrinking labor market demand (relative to supply) for workers with such attributes? In Latin America, educational systems themselves are caught in this acute contradiction: the need to respond to popular pressure for better education and hold out educational access as a potential source of mobility, and the need to produce a labor force able to assume and accept its assigned position in a new open economy.

The political, as well as the practical, difficulty is evidenced by the great discrepancy between what is said about secondary education and what is actually done. Behind the customary proposals for reforming technical education, for example, are a few well-known presumptions: 1) that the advance of science and technology requires an agricultural, industrial, or service worker with a more sophisticated range of capabilities than that which previously seemed adequate; and 2) that governments in the region are committed to addressing this need so that national economies can achieve international integration on favorable terms, as well as in order to stimulate economic growth while promoting greater social equality.

These presuppositions already enjoy a certain level of generalized rhetorical agreement. Nonetheless, when we consider these ideas more carefully, a number of uncertainties arise that are difficult to ignore. For example, the idea that education and training are more necessary than ever in this, the age of science and technology, is already a fundamentally accepted truth. Presumably, open economies integrated into a global economic system require a highly skilled, highly trained competitive labor force. One expert writes:

We are in the midst of a change of paradigms in work and in all human activity, which will grant more power to the individual. This signifies that the instruments, the control techniques will tend to pass into hands of the worker. The proliferation of information, the rhythm and change of the evolution of needs and human potential are elements that contribute to this change. In this sense, we might think that, in the area of future productive tasks:
  • activities controlled by a manager will become activities controlled by workers;
  • work structured by regulations will become work oriented by problem-solving;
  • direct control of a task will become work controlled at a distance;
  • closely supervised individual work will become creative and cooperative group work;
  • controlled access information will become free access, and instruction will become learning through the acquisition of aptitudes and knowledge.
We find ourselves in the process of developing sophisticated skills that will help the worker with such tasks as:
  • The collection, processing, evaluation and communication of information;
  • The development of tasks in a manner that requires mental rather than only manual skills;
  • The knowledge of what needs to be learned or the knowledge of how to learn it;
  • Communication with clients, colleagues and with intelligent machines and systems.6
Nevertheless, current data from the United States, Canada, and England, as well as projections of the labor force structure in these countries indicate that, despite greater proportional growth in high-skill occupations and in those occupations requiring scientific and technological expertise, the absolute growth in employment will occur in occupations at the lowest skill levels.

In the United States, for example, the two occupations projected to experience the greatest increase in numbers of jobs by the year 2000 are janitorial services and food servers. In Canada, the same trend has been observed: the four occupations of greatest expansion are retail sales, cashiers, secretaries, and chauffeurs.7

At the same time, the prevailing process of “deskilling” indicates that even new posts which now require specialized education shall become numerous posts split into routine and repetitive tasks. As evidence of this process, we have only to look at the very occupation of computer programmer—the author of so many of the structural changes in other occupations. During the 1950s, the “systems analyst” occupied a privileged place, with a high income, autonomy, and flexible working conditions. The great majority of these workers were men. However, forty years later, these jobs have been transformed into a variety of “sub” occupations composed of routine tasks, and the people who hold them work under controls that can only be effected by combining the management style of the 19th century factory and the technological supervision of the 20th century office.

Although computer mediated technologies have become standard in goods production, administration, and the services in the past twenty-five years, this does not imply that the worker is becoming multivalenced or that control over the labor process has passed from management to workers. After a prolonged period during which task rationalization was the crucial marker of most kinds of industrial and service labor, the traditional hierarchies of the highly rationalized workplace characteristic of the industrializing era have, with important exceptions, been preserved. For example, computer programming is divided among systems analysts who have broad technical responsibilities, programmers whose range is bounded within the general parameters of the system, and operators or word processors whose work is typically routine... Almost from the beginning of commercial and industrial computer applications, the distinction between the computer program (software) and its operation (data or word processing) reproduced the old industrial hierarchy between design and execution. By the late 1960s, academic computer science had been born: the research scientist was separated from the technical expert who, in turn, was removed from the operator. The putative distinction between science/technology and operation had been maintained.8

Recently, in Washington, the Occupational Safety and Health Agency, which monitors working conditions, reported that the majority of work-related injuries sustained in 1995 involved repetitive movements of fingers and wrists associated with computer work. Moreover, the great majority of workers in the information-processing field were low-income women.

An investigation into the prevalent manner of applying the new information technology does not show the obsolescence of the Taylorist management model. Instead, it shows the possibilities for control and vigilance, fragmentation of work, and proliferation of repetitive tasks that were not even imagined twenty years ago. From the point of view of scientific management, this creates the ideal scenario anticipated by Frederick Taylor: the perfect interchange of people and functions.9

Nor can we suppose that the process of occupational development will be different in Latin America. In fact, one of the primary concerns of the North American worker has been the probability of exporting to low-wage countries precisely those semi-skilled, previously well-paid, jobs located in the heavy industries of the developed world.

It is tempting for us to think romantically of technology and information systems as tools that will liberate us through the promotion of creativity and imagination. But technology does not advance in our societies for disinterested reasons; instead it advances for one specific reason. Technological development can lower the cost of labor either absolutely or relative to its productivity. This objective is attained through one of two possibilities: 1) reduction in the number of workers necessary to complete a task, or 2) reduction in the levels of training necessary to complete a task. This set of circumstances explains the great paradox of our times: although we live in an age of science and technology, each day a smaller percentage of the economically active population works with state-of-the-art technology.

The development process creates an increasingly complex division of labor with new industries, markets, technologies, institutional systems, and capital concentrations. Consequently, the labor distribution changes among occupations and industries. By sector, within occupations and industries, the employment structure will depend on the scale and technology of production. The tendency to displace the labor force from occupations where the speed of technological advance is greater has been widely observed. The effect of displacement due to technological progress can be offset by increases in demand for the products manufactured and for the technology itself, but within each industry, employment will tend to increase absolutely in those occupations unaffected by technological change. The purpose of introducing more productive technology is to decrease (not to increase) the number of workers attached to it.

These tendencies explain a phenomenon that is now apparent in the region: economic growth without the expected corresponding increases in employment, as well as the broadening and deepening of poverty. In simple terms, technological development has displaced workers and lowered their incomes per unit of production. This is a process that has obvious sociodemographic effects: the transformation of a single post with a broad scope of responsibility, high salary, advanced levels of skill and training, and a male incumbent, into various posts based on routine tasks, reduced income, minimal training, and a young female employee.

The recent economic crisis in Latin America accelerated this process. During the last decade, the international economy was restructured in order to correct the falling rate of profit, on the one hand, and the rising public debt on the other. The “corrections,” or adjustment programs, uniformly incorporated reductions in the public budget for the social sector: expenditures per capita diminished in the education, public health, and housing sectors during the 1980s in the majority of Latin American countries. The female population was most immediately affected by these cutbacks, because women tend to be responsible for the maintenance of the household and the rearing of children. Just as these structural adjustment programs represented a response to the fall in the overall rate of profit that had begun in the 1960s,10 they also included initiatives designed to lower the cost of labor in general. In Latin America, and especially in the Caribbean Basin, the regional economy was profoundly restructured during the 1980s in order to accommodate industrial production for export. The strategy was designed to reduce costs for manufacturers and North American investors, stimulate the economy of Latin America and the Caribbean, create employment, and strengthen the political stability of the region. Nonetheless, from the standpoint of the individual entrepreneur, the basic motivation for this type of investment was, of course, lower labor costs and relief from regulations regarding health, safety, and environment. Downward pressure on wages resulted from the way in which capital attempted to reduce its costs of operation as a response to its own internal crises. Women workers, who represent over 80% of the labor force in the region’s export processing zones, were particularly affected.11

The second assumption, that governments in the region are committed to addressing the demand for better secondary education in order to achieve international integration on favorable terms, as well as to stimulate economic growth while promoting social equality, is also difficult to substantiate.

Research published by Fernando Reimers shows that Latin America spends less per capita on secondary education than any other region in the world. African countries spend 2 times the per capita amount of Latin America, Asia spends 5 times as much, Europe 19 times, and the United States and Canada 34 times as much.12

Moreover, this difference in spending among regions increased during the 1980s. The growth in the rate of educational expenditure in real terms was less in Latin America than in any other region. Nevertheless, Reimers shows that educational expenditures, as a percentage of public spending, are comparable in relative terms to the expenditures of governments in other regions. This seems paradoxical when it is noted that, on average, the governments of Latin America spend less on education relative to the GDP than governments in other parts of the world. But the two figures together explain the difference: the deficit in educational expenditures between Latin America and the rest of the world is a function of the reduced amount of public resources in Latin America.

A discrepancy also exists between the budgets allocated to Ministries of Education and the budget executed, a circumstance that bodes ill for formal education at all levels in the region. Apparently, many Ministries of Education suffered such personnel losses through the fiscal cuts that accompanied structural adjustment, that they are unable to disburse even the reduced funds now assigned to them.

A closer look at the types of expenditures that predominate in Latin American Ministries of Education does not improve the picture. A global review shows that 50 percent of countries spend more than 10 percent of their educational budgets on capital or infrastructural outlays. In contrast, 93 percent of Latin American countries spend less than 10 percent. In the field of technical education, or education directly related to employment, where the rental or purchase and maintenance of equipment is essential to effective instruction, this ratio of types of expenditures implies a lack of updated equipment and materials.

These circumstances lead us to certain questions about educational policy and the role of the State in the process of reforming technical education systems, for reforms are always promoted politically. Many countries in the region are either considering or implementing a policy of decentralization to address the changing relationship between education and work. This type of reorganization may be an effective response to the educational demands of more fluid economies. It is also useful, however, to consider this type of reform within the framework of budgetary constraints and the historical inability of the State to provide education adapted to available work opportunities at the national level.

The term “decentralization” generally refers to the transfer of forms of authority, control, and financing to local levels of government, such as provinces, states, or municipalities. If the national government, however, lacks authority, technical expertise, and financing, decentralization necessarily refers to diminished resources available for transfer and the exercise of decentralization, in effect, loses meaning. As another author described it:

If the central state is weak and becoming weaker, then there is less and less effective power and control to devolve, such that the entire exercise becomes increasingly empty and meaningless (rather like a person with little or no wealth going to great lengths to write a will governing what the heirs will inherit).13

In contrast, if the process of decentralization is carried out as an initiative that responds more directly to local training needs, labor demand, and community development goals, it can be a positive development, when and if it is endowed with the financial resources that make such programs possible.