Below are the first 10 and last 10 pages of uncorrected machine-read text (when available) of this chapter, followed by the top 30 algorithmically extracted key phrases from the chapter as a whole.
Intended to provide our own search engines and external engines with highly rich, chapter-representative searchable text on the opening pages of each chapter. Because it is UNCORRECTED material, please consider the following text as a useful but insufficient proxy for the authoritative book pages.
Do not use for reproduction, copying, pasting, or reading; exclusively for search engines.
OCR for page 62
--> 4— Should Social Skills Be in the Vocational Curriculum? Evidence from the Automotive Repair Field Bonalyn Nelsen Introduction At the turn of the century it was common for wealthy families to enroll their daughters in institutions known as finishing schools. Although these institutions were far from progressive or enlightened by today's standards, they served what was then a socially valued purpose: imparting the social skills that would ease a young woman's entry into the adult role she would soon occupy. Of course, the roles of women in such families were quite different from women's roles today; apart from managing household servants, the chief occupation of such women consisted of entertaining and being entertained. Therefore, students were drilled in etiquette, connoisseurship, voice and music, the art of making lively and entertaining conversation, and other skills required by female members of genteel society. Through concerted practice in realistic settings, students gradually acquired the ability to adapt their behavior to various social settings and to project the image of grace and poise that was the hallmark of an accomplished wife and hostess (McBride, 1992). Today, finishing schools and their unique brand of training are found only in the pages of history books. Two factors contributed to their demise. First, the roles for which they prepared young women no longer exist. It is now customary to prepare all young people for active, productive roles in the work force without regard to gender, race, or social class. Second, society's views on the importance of social skills and knowledge have undergone considerable revision. Although few parents and teachers would discount these skills entirely, the social capital imparted by finishing schools is generally considered to be far less important than the intellectual capital imparted by schools—basic literacy, numeracy, writing
OCR for page 63
--> skills, and the like. When the perceived importance of role-specific social skills diminished, the need for structured opportunities devoted to imparting these skills evaporated, and the finishing schools disappeared. But it may be time to reconsider the importance of social capital in general and social training in particular. Since the 1980s, researchers have penned countless reports and articles bemoaning the poor performance of recent high school graduates in the workplace (e.g., see National Commission for Excellence in Education, 1983; Gorman, 1988; Carnevale et al., 1988; Aerospace Education Foundation, 1989). Although the problem is commonly attributed to a lack of academic skills, recent evidence suggests it may be at least partly social in nature. Employers surveyed about their hiring preferences consistently rank a good attitude and the ability to adapt to work environments as more important than educational credentials (Barton, 1990). Many also report difficulty in finding young people who exhibit a desirable mix of behaviors and attitudes (Barton, 1990; Committee for Economic Development, 1984). It is hardly surprising, then, that employers are far more likely to dismiss employees for difficulties in adapting to the work environment than for failure to learn job skills (National Association of Manufacturers, 1990; Committee for Economic Development, 1991; Cappelli, 1995). This evidence has prompted at least one researcher to ask if the so-called skills gap is due to a deficit of prosocial attitudes and behaviors (see Cappelli, 1995). It is important to consider this possibility, for if the skills gap can be partly attributed to a lack of social skills, simply reinforcing basic literacy and numeracy will be insufficient to improve the work performance of high school graduates. This essay takes up the idea that the poor performance of recent high school graduates may indeed be partly social in nature. However, I argue that the problem is rooted not only in a lack of generally useful attitudes and behaviors like responsibility and punctuality, as Cappelli (1995) suggests, but also in a deficit of the occupationally specific social skills and knowledge needed to thrive in today's workplace—precisely the type of social capital once imparted by finishing schools. But what is social capital, and why is it in short supply? Role Of Social Capital In The Workplace All social groups possess a set of cultural rules and norms that guide the behavior of members. Persons who aspire to membership must learn to identify and comply with those rules (Gerholm, 1990). Social capital consists of the skills and knowledge required to evaluate and respond to situational demands in social settings. It provides individuals with the ability to ''fit in" or gain acceptance to social groups over time by appreciating the cultural rules and norms governing any given situation and adapting their behavior to comply with those rules. This ability is critical because individuals who experience difficulty in perceiving and adapting to cultural rules risk being labeled outsiders. As a rule, those who hold
OCR for page 64
--> this marginal status receive fewer benefits. In work groups, benefits consist of favors, indulgence, offers of assistance, and, perhaps most important, access to the informal knowledge required for practice. Broadly speaking, two types of knowledge are applied in work activities: formal and informal. Formal knowledge consists of facts, principles, theories, algorithms, and other abstract systematic forms of knowledge. It is usually explicit and decontextualized—characteristics that render this knowledge easily codifiable (Brown and Duguid, 1991). Hence, formal knowledge is found in manuals, protocols, computer programs, and various textual resources present in the workplace. Informal knowledge consists of heuristics, work styles, and other situated understandings about materials, tools, and techniques (Barley, 1985; Barley and Nelsen, 1995). It is largely tacit, embedded in activity, and tied to the particulars of work in a given setting. Because informal knowledge is seldom articulated and somewhat variable, it is rarely written down. Instead, the understandings that make up informal knowledge are lodged in the collective memory and work practices of the local community of practice. The skills and knowledge required to obtain informal knowledge will be very different from those used to gain formal knowledge. To access formal knowledge, one has but to obtain the manual or program in which the knowledge is stored and find the needed information within. These resources are typically an "unrestricted good" provided by the employer and freely available to all employees. Indeed, newly hired workers can expect to receive numerous policy manuals and handbooks upon arrival at their new jobs. Manuals and textbooks are on hand for all who need them. Software is installed in workstations frequented by many employees. Thus, any worker with the ability to read and open a computer icon can acquire formal knowledge on the job. But informal knowledge is not an unrestricted good possessed by the employer and freely shared with all. Rather, it is the intellectual property of the community of practice in a given work setting. To access this information, new hires must successfully insert themselves into the community of practice and become an accepted member. Social capital is vital on both accounts. Individuals with a deficit of social skills may never have the opportunity to acquire informal knowledge, for some degree of cultural proficiency is necessary to be hired in the first place. Social competence is often taken as an indicator of intellectual competence and technical ability (Gerholm, 1990). If job candidates behave awkwardly or inappropriately during an interview, employers may interpret their behavior as a sign of general incompetence. Thus, even talented, well-trained students can experience difficulty in the job market if they are unable to demonstrate a reasonable amount of social acuity during a job interview (Sternberg, 1993). Social capital is just as important after a neophyte's arrival on the job. In fact, the quality of a new hire's informal education depends largely on his or her ability to create an impression suggestive of competency and sociability. Most informal knowledge is transmitted spontaneously, usually as relevant problems
OCR for page 65
--> are encountered in the course of work activities, and is passed among workers in the form of bits of advice, stories, demonstrations, and brief instances of guided practice (e.g., see Barley and Bechky, 1994). One must be an "insider" to be actively included in such exchanges. Moreover, frequent contact between neophytes and experienced workers increases the likelihood that informal understandings will be passed (Gerholm, 1990). Communities of practice are inherently practical; members are less likely to invest time and effort in tutoring neophytes who appear to be technically or socially inept. Thus, neophytes who display considerable social prowess are more likely to enjoy the company of peers and, consequently, to receive more opportunities for informal instruction than those perceived as social misfits. A lack of social acuity would not be problematic but for the fact that successful work practice hinges on mastery of informal knowledge. Although so-called unskilled and semiskilled workers have always relied almost exclusively on such knowledge (Kusterer, 1978), workers with considerable formal training also make extensive use of informal understandings. For example, technicians and technologists employed in fields where postsecondary education is either mandatory or customary claim that formal knowledge is far less important than the informal knowledge gained through experience and participation in the local community of practice (Barley, 1985; Barley and Nelsen, 1995). Professionals also report that much, if not most, of the learning central to their work took place after they completed formal studies and immersed themselves in work activities (Schon, 1983; Wagner, 1987; Wagner and Sternberg, 1985). In short, it appears that social capital and the ability to fit in are crucial to any young person's success on the job. Developing Social Acuity for Work Unfortunately, most students have few opportunities to develop this ability before being thrust into situations where they are expected to exhibit it. Schools do a fair job of inculcating reading skills, mathematical knowledge, and other forms of intellectual capital, but they can be poor places in which to become socially adept. This is because schools may fail to replicate the social environment found in the workplace, to impart social capital useful in the workplace, and to provide structured opportunities for learning and practicing social skills. Replication of the Work Environment Developing social capital requires familiarity with the social dynamics extant in the workplace. To impart such knowledge, schools must faithfully replicate the social environment found in work settings by creating situations that mimic those found in the workplace and populating them with actors found in
OCR for page 66
--> such situations. Interaction with experienced practitioners, employers, consumers, suppliers, and other parties should take place under conditions similar to those found in the workplace and engender similar consequences. Students should be placed in a role like the one they will assume on the job and should have occasion to sample both the freedoms and the limitations inherent in that position. Most schools and vocational training programs fail to provide these conditions. Because few consumers, employers, or other parties encountered in the workplace frequent schools with regularity, students have limited opportunities for interaction. The pressures and consequences of the interaction they do experience in school environments may be quite different from those found in work environments. Teachers and classmates may, for example, be far more tolerant of social nonconformity than employers and experienced workers. Aberrant behavior that garners a reprimand from a teacher or a trip to the principal's office can be grounds for immediate dismissal in work settings. And the role students occupy in the classroom may be quite unlike those in the workplace, although these may overlap for a short time. As a result, schools often do a poor job of providing the cultural backdrop against which social capital is acquired. Congruence of Social Capital The deficit of occupationally specific capital can be traced to another characteristic of school environments. Simply put, schools frequently pursue their own agendas by imparting social skills useful in schools—not the workplace. In his seminal study of socialization in the classroom, Philip Jackson (1968) noted that students are subjected to a "hidden curriculum" that implicitly inculcates social skills that make them more manageable in the classroom. Through judicious distribution of rewards and punishments, teachers encourage students to be patient and submissive, passive and quiet, and not to come readily to the aid of peers as such activity is labeled "cheating." Although this sort of social capital undoubtedly makes students more tractable, it may do little to improve their chances of learning on the job. In fact, studies of socialization and learning in the workplace suggest that the social capital acquired in schools may actually hinder informal learning on the job. Both Becker (1972) and Kusterer (1978) noted that employers seldom assign formal responsibility for teaching newcomers how to perform their duties. Consequently, apprentices and new hires must assume responsibility for their own informal education by continually seeking opportunities for learning on the job. Individuals who are passive and submissive risk being overlooked or perpetually stuck with menial, unpleasant chores that offer few opportunities for acquiring new skills and knowledge (Barley and Nelsen, 1995). Even assertive newcomers will probably enjoy limited tutoring if they ignore norms of reciprocity governing exchanges of assistance and information for long.
OCR for page 67
--> Structured Opportunities for Learning and Practice A few learning environments do meet the requirements outlined above. Craft apprenticeships, residencies in teaching hospitals, and the training of doctoral candidates in academic departments expose students to the social dynamics of the workplace, mainly because the learning and work environments are one and the same. However, even students in these exemplary settings may fail to acquire social capital if no deliberate efforts are made to impart it. For example, Gerholm (1990:263) has noted that academic departments make little deliberate effort to teach graduate students "the rules of the game" or to impress upon them the importance of learning cultural rules and norms, despite the fact that such knowledge profoundly affects the quality of their education and, eventually, their careers (see also Sternberg, 1993). Instead, students must pick up these implicit understandings on their own through interactions with teachers, peers, and staff members. This process becomes an informal sorting mechanism in academic departments: students who catch on readily become ensconced in the departmental community and enjoy enhanced opportunities for learning while those exhibiting less social acuity are branded outsiders and consequently enjoy fewer opportunities. Although this Darwinian logic effectively selects out students who innately lack social ability (and who are consequently poor candidates for membership in the academic community), it may also have the unfortunate effect of excluding those who suffer a surmountable handicap in this area. One can reasonably expect students whose racial, ethnic, or class backgrounds or other characteristics differ from those predominating in the departmental community (and, by extension, the workplace) to experience some difficulty in picking up the cultural rules and norms that guide behavior in school and work settings. However, in the absence of explicit attempts to inculcate social capital to all, the cultural playing field may not be level. The Importance of Social Capital In sum, the idea of providing students with structured opportunities for acquiring occupationally specific social capital retains considerable merit even in today's more enlightened and productive age. These understandings are at least as important to success on the job as basic and technical skills. Yet most schools offer few opportunities to acquire them. Quite simply, schools are not workplaces. Hence, most are either unwilling or unable to provide the situations and settings that students will experience upon entering the work force. Even schools that faithfully replicate actual work settings seldom make deliberate attempts to impart these understandings. This implies that opportunities for acquiring social capital are haphazard at best and nonexistent at worst. It is little wonder, then, that employers are increasingly dissatisfied with the quality of social skills possessed by recent high school graduates.
OCR for page 68
--> An Alternative Model of Social Education Obviously, reversing the deficit of social skills will require a search for alternatives to existing models of social education in the classroom. The finishing school represents one such model. These were institutions devoted to imparting the social capital required to ease young people into adult roles and help them become productive members of society. Because they were boarding schools, students were immersed in the social settings and roles they would soon occupy. Students were swept up in a dizzying round of balls, dinners, parties, and outings, all of which provided occasions for experiencing social dynamics in realistic settings. These activities were supplemented with formal instruction in social skills and structured opportunities for practice. Parlors and gardens became laboratories in which young women honed the social skills they would need for public life. Needless to say, because the schools existed expressly for imparting social capital, the skills and knowledge taught were congruent with those needed in the "workplace." These features made finishing schools highly effective vehicles for imparting the unique type of social capital required by the social elite. I believe that today's students could benefit greatly from the type of instruction formerly provided by these schools. Of course, the modern-day "finishing school" would bear little resemblance to its forerunner in either form or content. For example, to maximize efficiency and comply with modern educational practices, instruction would take place within existing vocational training programs rather than boarding schools devoted solely to that purpose. "Laboratories" would consist of offices, sales counters, examination rooms, and shop floors rather than dress balls and tea parties. And the curricula would include strategies for handling difficult customers, reporting problems to the boss, or seeking the advice of experienced peers rather than being a gracious hostess. However, the purpose of the lessons would remain essentially the same: first, and perhaps most importantly, to sensitize students to the importance of social dynamics in the workplace; second, to make them familiar with the cultural rules of the occupation for which they are preparing; third, to note how these rules may vary across work settings; fourth, to acquaint students with the occupational roles they will soon occupy; and, finally, to tutor them in a variety of appropriate responses to social situations they will soon experience and to provide opportunities for practice. None of these lessons are possible without a detailed knowledge of the cultural rules and norms observed in the occupation in question. Finishing schools owed their success largely to an impressive understanding of the social capital needed by women in upper-class households. This knowledge allowed the institutions to create a representative sample of social settings in which to learn and practice. In fact, the facilities themselves were carefully designed to create a physical and social atmosphere that faithfully mimicked those the students would enjoy upon graduation (McBride, 1992). Similarly, any discussion of modern-day
OCR for page 69
--> "finishing schools" or formal social instruction must start with the development of a detailed understanding of the social capital needed by newcomers in a given occupational milieu. To this end, I will consider the example of automotive repair. By drawing on data from an ethnographic study of auto repair, I will examine the sort of social capital required by workers in actual work settings. Auto repair is a field not renowned for social aplomb; automotive technicians would seem to be unlikely candidates for finishing schools. Yet, as I will show, social skills are of vital importance to the success of practitioners in this occupation. These data will be used to fashion a typology of social skills and knowledge required to ease entry-level automotive technicians into full-fledged occupational roles. Although by no means exhaustive, this typology offers a representative description of the types of social capital useful for gaining acceptance in work settings. The essay will conclude with a discussion of how this knowledge could be used to create opportunities for acquiring social capital useful in this occupational milieu. Data And Methods Automotive repair is a field that offers a wide variety of services and service delivery formats.1 To develop a more comprehensive understanding of these formats and their social dynamics, I chose to study two firms featuring highly contrasting models of service delivery. The first firm was an independently owned dealership that sold and serviced the full line of vehicles produced by a U.S. automotive manufacturer. This was a high-volume shop offering a full range of maintenance and repair services. Most of the repair shop's business consisted of routine maintenance and warranty repair work on the product line featured by the dealership, although other work was willingly accepted. The shop's 16 technicians were assigned to one or more technical specialties (e.g., brakes, transmissions, tune-ups, and electrical system). Two of these technicians had been in the field for less than 2 years and, hence, held an apprentice-like status in the local community of practice. One other technician had worked in the field for less than 3 years. The remainder of the technical staff had considerable tenure, with the most senior employee logging 24 years with the dealership. In addition, the shop employed four predelivery inspection attendants to vacuum, clean, and prepare vehicles for delivery to clients; a parts-room attendant responsible for ordering and maintaining stock; five service advisers who handled customer service duties and paperwork; and three clerical employees. Managerial responsibilities were divided between two positions: a shop manager, who took responsibility for technician's work, and a service manager, who supervised the remaining staff and overall service operations. 1 A service format represents an organizational template for service delivery in the after-market automotive repair industry (Mateyka et al., 1988). Five formats are dominant: speciality repair, mass merchandisers, independent repair shops, full-service gas stations, and new car dealerships.
OCR for page 70
--> The second research setting was a small, independently owned repair shop. Unlike the dealership, this shop provided only automotive maintenance and repair services. The owner was a technician who worked alongside the two technicians he employed in the shop's three service bays. Although he had been in the industry for 18 years and had owned his own shop for 6, his employees had only 3 and 5 years of experience, respectively. Both had been employed at the shop for approximately 3 years. The owner's spouse handled most of the clerical and administrative duties. The owner and his technicians were "bumper-to-bumper mechanics," who prided themselves on their general knowledge of automotive technology and ability to tackle most repairs. Most repair work was performed on site, although work requiring tools not owned by the shop, such as precision welding or grinding, was dispatched to various specialty shops in the vicinity. My methods of data collection were identical for both research sites. I moved freely about the shop, spending much time observing how the technicians worked and interacted with others in their work area. I also observed activities in other areas, such as the detailing area, vehicle drop-off area, parts room, customer waiting areas, and parking lots. In each location, both workers and customers were encouraged to speak freely about their past and present activities and interactions. I observed activity at the dealership for 5 days per week for 6 to 10 hours a day. Observations at the independent shop were more sporadic, consisting of 4- to 8-hour periods once or twice each week. In total I logged 100 and 75 hours of observation, respectively, at the dealership and the independent shop. I jotted down field notes throughout the day and expanded them off site each evening while memories were still fresh. These observations provided an invaluable opportunity to witness firsthand the social dynamics of the workplace: the exchange of information and assistance, the socialization of employees, the forging of alliances, the enactment and violation of cultural rules and norms. These observations were supplemented by detailed taped interviews conducted with 18 technicians, shop owners, and service managers employed in other auto repair shops. In addition to other topics, technicians were encouraged to offer detailed accounts of their early experiences on the job. Particular attention was paid to instances in which technicians had committed social gaffes and the lessons they learned as a result. Questioning also focused on strategies they successfully employed to win the acceptance of peers and avoid attributions of incompetence (namely, "looking stupid"). Shop owners and service managers were encouraged to describe their expectations for entry-level automotive technicians and to recount examples of behavior that met, exceeded, or fell short of their expectations. These data were analyzed with an iterative process of coding and hypothesis formation. The first wave of coding identified various types of social capital used in the workplace: knowledge useful for exchanges of assistance; for accessing, disseminating, and evaluating informal knowledge; and so on. Subsequent analysis was devoted to elaborating these categories to fashion a typology of social
OCR for page 71
--> capital useful to entry-level automotive technicians. It is to this typology that I now turn. Fitting In And Getting By: Social Capital In Auto Repair Although repair shop owners, service managers, and technicians expressed slightly different opinions about what skills and abilities were required by entry-level automotive technicians, all agreed that two types of competencies are indispensable. The first consists of basic and technical skills. Entry-level technicians should have the ability to read, write, and perform basic arithmetic and should have a firm grasp of relevant technical skills: a knowledge of safety and tool use; a basic understanding of the function of automotive systems, their components, and repair procedures; the ability to perform visual inspections; and a familiarity with manual usage. The second type of competency is social. This is manifest in the ability to fit into the shop surroundings: to get along with co-workers and management, to communicate effectively, to impress clients with their competent and professional manner. Neophytes could ill afford a serious deficiency in either area. Entry-level automotive technicians were subjected to close scrutiny before and after their arrival on the job. Opinions about the new hires' technical and social competency were quickly formed in the workplace and, once made, were not easily shifted. It is customary for all new hires to serve a 60- or 90-day probationary period. However, informants reported that dismissal within a week or two of hiring was common if new hires showed signs of faltering.2 Although these practices may seem slightly Draconian, informants offered numerous justifications for their actions. Owners and service managers noted that botched repairs could result in thousands of dollars' worth of damage and life-threatening hazards—liabilities that no shop could afford. Disrespectful or curt treatment could produce a disgruntled customer and result in lost profits as surely as technical mishaps. Also, skilled technicians were highly sought after and, once found, were enticed to remain. Thus, many shops featured close-knit groups of technicians of long tenure. If new hires appeared unwilling or unable to adapt their behavior to the shop's existing social structure, they would quickly be shown the door. Finally, some shops invest considerable funds in training their technicians; shop owners and managers want to expend these funds wisely by 2 The use of assistants or teams was more prevalent in speciality repair shops, such as those that provided precision grinding and machining services or that rebuilt transmissions. In such shops, assistants would be employed to remove and install engines and transmissions, while technicians were charged with diagnosing and repairing the units. Dealerships also made occasional use of apprentices or assistants in this way. But for the most part, technicians work on a wholly independent basis.
OCR for page 72
--> retaining only those candidates who seem to be good prospects for long-term employment. The opinions rendered by experienced technicians could be just as swift and final. Experienced technicians realized that virtually all entry-level technicians would require a good deal of assistance and guidance to succeed on the job. However, they saw little point in investing time and effort in cultivating neophytes who showed scant promise, particularly when they knew such workers seldom stay long. Hence, individuals whose work or behavior displayed disregard for either technical standards or the rules and norms valued by practitioners were soon identified, avoided, and left to fend for themselves. "There are a lot of fish in the sea," noted one technician, "but only a few are keepers. As far as I'm concerned, the rest can work somewhere else." The implications of these views are clear—entry-level automotive technicians can greatly enhance their success on the job by understanding and exhibiting social capital. An informed and realistic view of expectations regarding their performance allows neophytes to more easily meet the behavioral requirements of the workplace. It also allows them to identify social pitfalls before they succumb. Both are central to avoiding attributions of incompetence and to winning acceptance among employers, managers, and fellow workers. The salient types of social capital are discussed below. Displaying a "Proper" Attitude The acceptance of an entry-level technician hinges largely on the ability to display an attitude that simultaneously projects an air of confidence and one of humility (Nelsen and Barley, 1994). Entry-level technicians must convince clients of their ability, persuade superiors of their worth as an employee, and assure experienced peers that they are worthy of help and instruction. Evincing an air of aplomb is necessary on all accounts. In interactions with customers, confidence is reflected in how technicians present themselves and their work: It's important that the technician projects a certain confidence in his abilities. That means not guessing, not going before the customer and saying, "Well, I'm not sure what it could be … could be this or could be this …" Instead, he should say, "We're going to find out what we need to fix. This is what I'm going to do to find that out." You have to understand that diagnosing some of these problems today can take up to 2 hours, and that's a lot for the customer to pay for. So they want to know that the technician knows what he's looking for, that he knows what he's doing. (service manager, dealership) In the shop, confidence is manifested in a willingness to tackle unfamiliar, unusual, and, eventually, complex tasks. Although entry-level technicians were expected to display a certain amount of hesitation or self-doubt, this behavior was expected to be quickly replaced with an air of determination and poise as experience grew. Trepidation expressed at confronting a task for the first time was
OCR for page 78
--> who are subject to extreme scrutiny during the first months on the job. New hires could do much to avoid attributions of incompetence by communicating their intent before proceeding: You can't assume that other people understand why I'm doing something or what I'm doing. This is especially true if I know that I'm going to be doing something that's really obvious but strange looking. Sometimes I'll prepare people for what I'm about to do. I'll say, "This is what I'm going to do, and this is why I'm going to do it. I know it's going to look strange." And if it's something I'm not real sure about, I'll ask for a second opinion. … "Do you have a suggestion on a way that I can do this better?" Now, if new guys would learn to do that before they look foolish or before they get in trouble, it'd be much better. (technician, repair franchise) Manipulation of Symbols An important part of projecting a desirable occupational image is understanding how to identify and manipulate those ideas and objects that symbolize competence, professionalism, and membership in the community of practice. Various objects can symbolize competence but perhaps none more so than the automotive technicians' tools. In the field of auto repair, technicians are expected to supply their own hand and power tools and handheld computerized diagnostic devices. Employers provide only larger diagnostic devices such as oscilloscopes, permanent fixtures like hydraulic lifts, and special tools needed to repair a specific make of car. So critical are tools to a technician's livelihood that it was widely held that one could accurately judge a practitioner's technical skills and attitude from the condition of these objects. Tools in poor condition indicated a lack of ability and caring, whereas well-maintained tools suggested prowess and professionalism. Entry-level technicians were not expected to possess the vast collection of tools common among experienced workers nor to feature expensive brands of equipment in their kits. But they were expected to own the tools needed to perform basic repairs and to have tools that were of reasonable quality, neatly organized, and well maintained. In fact, service managers and shop owners took the condition of a prospective employee's tools as an indicator of the candidate's promise—a box neatly stocked with well-tended tools was guaranteed to impress while tools in disarray or disrepair met with disapproval. Service managers and shop owners regularly asked to inspect applicants' tools during interviews. As one explained, "If the box looks like garbage, I figure the guy does garbage work. And I don't want him here." Clients also appeared to be impressed with tools, for technicians claimed that employers would strategically assign work bays most visible to the public to technicians who had neat, impressive collections. Upon a neophyte's arrival at a shop, the newcomer's tools once again became an object of attention. By casually borrowing an item from the newcomer's kit, experienced workers could
OCR for page 79
--> appraise the selection and condition of the items within and form an immediate impression of their owner. Judgments were based even on the nature and condition of the case in which tools were kept. Metal boxes and rollaway chests that were clean and dent-free were admired; plastic boxes covered with grime and decals were disparaged. One technician recalled the negative impression he had unwittingly created by toting an unimpressive tool box: I walked into my first job carrying my tools in an old fishing tackle box. … I saw the older mechanics eyeing me, but nobody said anything until I was getting ready to leave a couple years later. One of the old-timers said, "Jim, when we saw you walk in with that tackle box, we bet amongst ourselves that you wouldn't last the month. We thought you must be stupid if you carried that thing around. But you surprised us!" … There's a good lesson in that. (technician, dealership) Accessing, Disseminating, and Evaluating Informal Knowledge An entry-level automotive technicians' informal education can be speeded up with the help of a thorough understanding of the cultural rules for accessing, disseminating, and evaluating informal knowledge. One type of understanding involves knowing where to seek information. Quite simply, not all peers are equally knowledgeable. Informal knowledge is distributed in the community of practice along two dimensions. First, it is distributed among members by tenure. Those who have the longest tenure at the firm or in the business will have the richest stores of firm-specific and industry-specific knowledge, respectively. Informal knowledge is also distributed throughout the community by technical specialty. Individuals working as transmission repairers are the logical source of information on shifting patterns; drivability technicians, on cold-start problems; brake installers, on rotor tolerances; and so on. When a piece of information is needed, neophytes need to sift through the collective competencies of community members and identify the most appropriate source for knowledge. This is necessary not only to obtain the most accurate and reliable information but also to avoid appearing naive or uninformed by asking improper questions. For example, asking a lube technician whose experience is limited to changing oil and greasing fittings about a complex drivability problem would be viewed as absurd. However, if a neophyte discovers that, say, a transmission technician harbors an interest in drivability problems but seldom has an opportunity to display his knowledge, that person could become a valuable and enthusiastic informant. Individuals who have recently returned from training or who participate in continuing education courses are also good sources of information because they may be eager to demonstrate what they have learned. One technician took advantage of this opportunity by serving as an informal "study partner" for a peer who was studying for the Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)
OCR for page 80
--> certification examinations.4 Although not preparing for the tests himself, the neophyte quizzed his partner using practice booklets and manuals during breaks. This tactic proved doubly useful—the drills exposed the neophyte to a valuable source of formal knowledge and drew him closer to an indebted, more experienced peer. Discussions of the practice questions also provided the neophyte with opportunities for eliciting informal knowledge drawn from his peer's work experience. Once knowledgeable individuals are identified, neophytes are wise to cultivate relationships with them. Although newcomers should attempt to win acceptance among all community members, it is advantageous to secure the goodwill of those noted to be especially helpful or expert. This can be done simply by subtly acknowledging their expert status in the community of practice. Practitioners identified as being unusually skillful are usually treated differently than their less gifted compatriots. This may be reflected in forms of address. For instance, in one shop the resident drivetrain expert was introduced in the following manner: "This is Tony. He's our transmission god." Another expert was referred to as "a walking encyclopedia" of automotive knowledge. Although seemingly humorous, these words were spoken with sincerity and reverence. Respect was also manifest in interactions—when experts spoke, others paused to listen, and the experts' opinions were not challenged casually. Technicians also noted that a potentially helpful informant may not be a peer. By lending an ear to a frustrated shop foreman, neophytes could quickly become a valued confidant: If the boss keeps ignoring what the foreman's saying, and the foreman knows he's right, he's done the job over and over again, but the boss is thinking bottom line or thinking about sales or something else—the foreman will unload to somebody. And if it's that new hire, that's good—it builds a bond. I've seen that work out quite well. The boss never listens to the guy who's managing the shop. … Play into it. Work with the guy who's supervising you directly. And as a result, your life gets easier. (technician, dealership) Relationships with knowledgeable peers are likely to be short lived unless neophytes understand and obey the rules of disseminating informal information. These concern how one should exchange information: rules of listening, taking turns, and not saying more than you know. Given their inexperience and provisional status, neophytes were expected to listen attentively and not interrupt excessively or speak out of turn when conversing with more senior workers. Joking and a bit of good-natured bragging were acceptable, even encouraged, but delivering advice that one was unqualified to give was frowned upon. Rules of information exchange also governed when one should seek information. Neophytes 4 "ASE" refers to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence, a national nonprofit organization that tests and certifies the competency of automotive technicians. To become certified, technicians must pass written exams designed to test their technical knowledge.
OCR for page 81
--> were expected to refrain from making inquiries when the informant was rushed or engrossed in a complex problem, if possible, or to ask only short straightforward questions during such times. Break times and lulls in the workday provided better windows for seeking detailed answers to complex questions, and the answers received during these times would usually be far more descriptive and extensive. A final type of understanding concerns the ability to evaluate information. The validity and accuracy of information obtained from both formal and informal sources could prove unreliable with surprising frequency. Thus, accepting any information at face value was to court disaster. Neophytes must therefore retain a healthy but quiet sense of skepticism and develop the ability to carefully weigh information gathered. If an answer or passage recorded in a manual didn't seem right, technicians were expected to follow their hunch to determine if the suspect data were indeed faulty. As one technician noted, this process required both resourcefulness and determination: There's no one source of information that's going to be 100 percent correct. [Entry-level technicians] have to develop the ability to draw from different resources. I do it myself. I'll go ask somebody, and if I don't get a complete answer, or I'm not happy with the answer, or I don't understand it, I'll ask someone else or go to the book [manual]. And maybe I won't like what I see in the book either, so … I might go to a CD-ROM compilation. Or I might just need to see a good picture. … If the illustrations aren't in the book, maybe I can go find a similar-model vehicle and pop the hood [to] take a look at that one. That might mean a trip down to the dealer if it's not a late model. Or maybe a call to the dealer. These are all techniques I've had to use. (technician, independent shop) Technicians related numerous tales in which they saved their reputation for safety, technical skill, and good sense by evaluating a passage of text or a piece of advice that struck them as odd before acting on it. However, they also warned that neophytes' investigations should be conducted in a discreet, low-key manner to avoid giving the appearance of second-guessing more experienced colleagues. As one explained, "This is one time when it's important to be quiet and go about your business." Knowledge of Rules Governing Exchange of Assistance Virtually all entry-level technicians require considerable help. This can consist of simple gestures, such as showing the newcomer where supplies and equipment are located, to elaborate favors, such as offering detailed demonstrations of repair procedures. Experienced peers are fully aware of the newcomers' need and are generally willing to assist. However, exchanges of assistance are governed by cultural rules. Newcomers must observe these rules to avoid wearing thin their peers' good will.
OCR for page 82
--> For example, requests for assistance should be distributed throughout the shop to avoid overtaxing anyone in particular. When assistance is rendered, recipients should be attentive and make an effort to learn from the experience. It is not expected that a neophyte will retain complex information after a single hearing or viewing. But it is assumed that after two or three exposures the information will become embedded in memory. Technicians complained that nothing was so annoying or ill tolerated than "a new guy who asks the same damn question over and over." In fact, such behavior was interpreted as a sign of general incompetence or an uncaring attitude. It is important for recipients to show gratitude when assistance is rendered and to adhere to the norms of reciprocity that govern such exchanges. These norms specify an even exchange of assistance or other favors. Of course, the entry-level technicians' inexperience places them in a relatively poor position to reciprocate with exchanges of technical assistance, so they must discover other ways to make up their social deficit if they are to continue receiving aid. Entry-level technicians devised ingenious ways of settling their debt with peers. For example, one made a habit of passing a plate of home-baked cookies among peers several times a week. A second voluntarily swept clean the work areas of experienced technicians at the end of each day. A third reported treating his co-workers to an occasional fast-food lunch. And one technician fulfilled his social obligations by occasionally purchasing new tools for helpful colleagues: It's a good idea to "buy your way in," like I did. If you borrow their tools, you might want to buy them a tool. Like, hand them a flashlight and say, "Here—I noticed your flashlight is busted, so I bought you a new one. Thanks very much for letting me borrow your tools and thanks for all your advice." Let 'em know that their help pays dividends. (technician, independent shop) Of course, one must take care when fashioning such strategies; overt sweeping expressions of gratitude may be viewed as manipulative attempts to curry favor while perfunctory gestures could seem insulting. Although the actual methods used varied, acceptable means of repaying a social debt were always subtle, modest, and, perhaps most importantly, sincere. Knowledge of Ideal and Practical Demands In many cases there are "official" and "unofficial" ways of accomplishing tasks. The former are the methods decreed optimal by authoritative sources: manufacturers, suppliers, employers. Official procedures are featured in standard operating procedures, technical service bulletins, manuals, and other textual sources. Unofficial methods are the procedures that technicians themselves fashion through experience, experimentation, and judicious application of informal knowledge. These are embedded in heuristics, shortcuts, and makeshift measures. For instance, technicians routinely employ shortcuts by substituting procedures
OCR for page 83
--> of their own design for those in manuals, and they omit steps specified in a diagnostic or repair procedure deemed unnecessary for achieving desired results. Although unofficial methods can be more efficient or effective than official methods, they may not carry authoritative approval. Therefore, becoming a competent practitioner implies learning not only the methods themselves but also which method is deemed appropriate for a given situation. Myriad factors guide the selection and application of repair methodologies. For example, workers must be sensitive to employer preferences—some employers frown on informal methods while others encourage their use. In some cases, managers made their desires explicit: When I first started, I was fresh outta [community college] and thought I knew my stuff. But when I was doing my first brake job, I went to the boss and said, ''Where's the seal driver?" The boss said, "The what?" "You know, the seal driver … to drive these wheel seals in." He goes, "Son, come over here." He got a 2 × 4 and a hammer and says, "Watch this." And he showed me how most mechanics put it in without the special tool. I felt like a fool! I've always remembered this, and that's why I try to tell young guys there's a by-the-book way and there's the way they do it in real shops. Know the difference. (technician, independent shop) If managerial preferences were less obvious, neophytes could pick up shop norms by watching peers to see what fellow workers did and when they did it. A well-placed question to peers could also secure the needed information. In fact, experienced technicians considered such questions to be indicative of "shop savvy"—an understanding of and appreciation for the way work is really done in shops to save money, effort, and time. Demonstrating this knowledge helped neophytes shed the image of "being green"—naive and inexperienced—and speeded their acceptance into the community of practice. In contrast, consistently choosing and applying methods that technicians considered inappropriate—even if these are formal methods deemed optimal by manufacturers and employers—put neophytes at risk of being viewed as less than promising. This did not mean that neophytes could apply informal methods freely, however, for cultural rules specify who can use informal methods as well as when. Experienced technicians agreed that neophytes should refrain from taking shortcuts unless they had accumulated enough knowledge and experience to make informed detours. Similarly, neophytes were expected to avoid attempts at experimentation and innovation in work practices until they had mastered formal procedures and demonstrated their competence on repeated occasions. The Finishing School—An Old Idea Revisited To date, discussions of workplace readiness and the perceived shortfall of skills among high school graduates have revolved around a delimited range of knowledge and skills. Most prevalent are complaints about the lack of basic
OCR for page 84
--> literacy and numeracy, followed by reports of a widespread lack of technical skills—knowledge of technology (computers in particular), critical thinking skills, and the like. However, the foregoing discussion suggests that social capital also is an indispensable part of the workers' portfolio of skills and knowledge. These skills help entry-level automotive technicians communicate effectively, adapt their behavior to meet the practical and social exigencies of the workplace, and simultaneously avoid attributions of incompetence that impede employability and build relationships that facilitate learning and teamwork. Given the importance of such knowledge, it may be advantageous to provide structured opportunities for acquiring social capital in vocational schools. But what must be done to provide such opportunities? Once again, the example of the finishing school is instructive. Recall that these schools were effective vehicles for imparting social capital because they circumvented three curricular and pedagogical shortfalls that often plague modern schools. First, the schools provided ample opportunities for students to experience social dynamics characteristic of adult roles in realistic settings. Second, these experiences were supplemented with formal instruction in social skills and knowledge and structured opportunities for practice. Finally, the social capital imparted in finishing schools was entirely consistent with that required in real-world settings. To effectively inculcate the social skills and knowledge required by today's practitioners, vocational schools must also skirt these shortcomings. This implies that schools must do the following: provide opportunities to experience social dynamics in realistic work settings, supplement experiential learning with formal instruction and structured opportunities for practice, and achieve congruence between social capital valued in schools and in the workplace. Provide Opportunities to Experience Social Dynamics in Realistic Work Settings To become socially adept, students must experience firsthand the social dynamics of the workplace. Many vocational schools do a fair job of replicating the physical environment found in work settings: classrooms may look like shop floors, laboratories, and examination rooms; tools and instruments plied in real work settings are used; and students engage in the sort of tasks they will soon perform. But these settings are typically devoid of the kind of people the entry-level technician can expect to encounter on the job. Clients, managers, suppliers, and experienced practitioners are conspicuously absent. As a result, teachers are the only resource for building social capital available to most students. If instructors have some practical experience in the field, they can be a valuable source of information. However, in some school settings, students will interact with a single vocational instructor throughout their training or have few chances to mingle with others. Consequently, students may be exposed to the experiences
OCR for page 85
--> and social knowledge of only a single former practitioner. It is unlikely that any teacher's experiences encompass the full range of social capital a student could possibly be called on to exhibit. Replicating the social dynamics of the workplace in school therefore requires creating opportunities for sustained social interaction with people commonly found in the workplace. One means of accomplishing this goal is through increased use of internships, externships, apprenticeships, and other collaborative learning efforts between schools and employers in local labor markets. In addition, schools could seek ways to introduce social actors into the classroom. Encouraging a group of local employers to release a practitioner from his or her duties for a few hours every week would be a start. These advisers could circulate during practice activities, offering guidance, commentary on students' behavior, and, perhaps most importantly, an example of how full-fledged members of the occupational community of practice should behave. Managers and employers could also make regular appearances in the classroom, not to lecture but to interact informally with groups of students as they work. Retired practitioners also represent a valuable source of social guidance, and such individuals may readily volunteer a few hours each week in the classroom. Supplement Experiential Learning with Formal Instruction and Structured Opportunities for Practice Internships and other occasions for sampling social dynamics provide excellent opportunities for practicing social skills in actual work settings. However, internships alone can prove inadequate for the same reason that medical residencies and craft apprenticeships often fall short of the mark—namely, few deliberate attempts are made to inculcate this knowledge during the training experience. Hence, students with natural talents in this area may excel and receive more or better opportunities for learning while their less fortunate peers struggle for recognition and acceptance. Vocational schools could do much to level the social playing field by adding formal instruction in occupationally specific social skills to academic curricula and by creating situations in which students could practice. In the case of automotive repair, such instruction could be slipped into existing lesson plans with relative ease. For example, a discussion of the cultural significance of tools and tool maintenance could be added to demonstrations on safe and effective use of tools and implements in the shop. It is likely that, once appraised of the symbolic importance of tool care, students may see the chores of tool maintenance and shop cleanup in a somewhat different light. Lectures on the rudiments of asking questions, seeking assistance, projecting a professional image, and repaying social debts could also be featured. Students could be graded on their social proficiency as well as classroom performance to instill a respect for these skills. Similarly, a short module could be added in which students have the opportunity
OCR for page 86
--> to practice interaction and diagnostic questioning with volunteers recruited to play the role of customers in repair shops. After a few brief demonstrations by the instructor, students would take a turn at interacting with the "customer," who could challenge students by behaving in a nervous, puzzled, officious, or obnoxious manner. These sessions would be observed by students, teachers, and, ideally, practitioners and employers, who would critique each student's performance and offer alternative approaches. Students could also engage in role play to practice social skills in problem solving and conflict resolution. These lessons would logically precede internships or other forays into actual work settings. Achieve Congruence Between the Social Capital Valued in Schools and the Workplace Formal instruction, practice sessions, and other well-intentioned efforts to impart social capital in schools will be pointless if the social skills these impart are not those needed in the workplace. Care must be taken to ensure that acculturation in the classroom is congruent with that of the occupation for which students are preparing, for a basic lack of familiarity with the cultural rules and norms extant in the workplace can blunt pedagogical tools that are otherwise effective for imparting this knowledge. Evidence for this conclusion can be drawn from recent efforts to include social instruction in postsecondary vocational programs. In response to complaints from industry that technically skilled graduates frequently lack interpersonal and written communication skills and an awareness of ethics and values, the American Association of Community and Junior Colleges has spearheaded efforts to include social instruction in vocational training (see Rzonca et al., 1995:153-154). Under the association's direction and with financial support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a few pioneering community colleges have supplemented technical training with humanities courses. Although it is too soon to fully assess the courses' impact, employers have already objected to their content and relevance (Collins, 1991). The problem appears to stem, at least in part, from a discrepancy between the social capital that academics think employers want (and that academics are prepared to teach) and the social capital that new employees actually need. Humanities courses discuss generally useful ideas, attitudes, and behaviors but not the occupationally specific skills and knowledge that students will be called on to exhibit upon entry into the workplace. Summary My studies of the automotive repair field suggest that employers can unwittingly perpetuate such misunderstandings. During interviews, subjects were routinely asked to comment on the skills and knowledge required of entry-level
OCR for page 87
--> automotive technicians. The comments of shop owners and service managers echoed themes surprisingly similar to those of employers in general—all were unanimous in the opinion that "values" and "having a good attitude" were absolutely critical for being hired and for continued success on the job. However, only upon closer questioning and sustained observation in the workplace did it become apparent that service managers were not referring simply to generally useful values, ethics, and behaviors but also to the ability to appreciate and observe occupational norms and cultural rules. This experience suggests that it is important not to accept such terms at face value and to be clear when stating employment needs. To develop effective vehicles for social training and acculturation in the classroom, educators must acquire a detailed understanding of the social capital needed by entry-level workers. This requires detailed cultural studies of occupations and work practice produced with input from employers, managers, and, perhaps most importantly, practitioners themselves. References Aerospace Education Foundation 1989 America's Next Crisis: The Shortfall of Technical Manpower. Arlington, VA: Aerospace Education Foundation. Barley, Stephen R. 1985 The Technician as an Occupational Archetype: Observations on the Changing Nature of Work for Theories of Organizing. Working paper, National Center for the Educational Quality of the Workforce, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Barley, Stephen R., and Beth Bechky 1994 In the backrooms of science: The work of technicians in science labs. Work and Occupations 21:85-126. Barley, Stephen R., and Bonalyn J. Nelsen 1995 The Nature and Implications of Infrastructural Change for the Social Organization of Work. Technical report. Washington, DC: Office of Technology Assessment. Barton, Paul E. 1990 Skills Employers Need: Time to Measure Them? Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service. Becker, Howard 1972 School is a lousy place to learn anything. American Behavioral Scientist 16(1):85-105. Brown, John Seely, and Paul Duguid 1991 Organizational learning and communities of practice: Toward a unified view of learning, working and innovation. Organization Science 2(1):40-57. Cappelli, Peter 1995 Is the "skills gap" really about attitudes? California Management Review 37(4):108-124. Carnevale, Anthony P., Leila J. Gainer, and Ann S. Melzer 1988 Workplace Basics: The Skills Employers Want. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Labor and the American Society for Training and Development. Collins, J. 1991 A Description of an Attempt to Integrate the Humanities into Occupational Curricula at Kirkwood Community College. Unpublished master's project, College of Education, University of Iowa.
OCR for page 88
--> Committee for Economic Development 1984 Investing in Our Children. Washington, DC: Committee for Economic Development. 1991 An Assessment of American Education: Views of Employers, Higher Educators, the Public, Recent Students, and Their Parents. New York: Louis Harris Associates. Gerholm, Tomas 1990 On tacit knowing in academia. European Journal of Education 25(3):263-271. Gorman, Christine 1988 The literacy gap. Time December 19:56-57. Jackson, Philip W. 1968 Life in Classrooms. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston. Kusterer, Ken C. 1978 Know-How on the Job: The Important Working Knowledge of "Unskilled" Workers. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. Mateyka, James A., Jason D. Lee, and Arthur Chiang 1988 The Auto Service Industry: Winners and Losers in the 1990s. Technical paper no. 880394, Society of Automotive Engineers, Warrendale, PA. McBride, Sarah Davis 1992 Ornaments of education: The material world of National Park Seminary. Washington History 4(1):47-68. National Commission for Excellence in Education 1983 A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office. Nelsen, Bonalyn J. 1995 Managing the Anomalous Cultural Position of Skilled Service Workers: Observations from the Field of Auto Repair. Working paper, National Center for the Educational Quality of the Workforce, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Nelsen, Bonalyn J., and Stephen R. Barley 1994 Toward an Emic Understanding of Professionalism Among Technical Workers. Working paper no. WP29, National Center for the Educational Quality of the Workforce, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. Rzonca, Chet, Douglas Gustafson, and Sandra Boutelle 1995 Vocational education: Meeting manpower needs and providing student opportunities. Pp. 139-160 in The New Modern Times, David B. Bills, ed. Albany: State University of New York Press. Schon, Donald A. 1983 The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books. Sternberg, Robert 1993 Intelligence is more than IQ: The practical side of intelligence. Journal of Cooperative Education 28(2):6-17. Wagner, Richard K. 1987 Tacit knowledge in everyday intelligent behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52(6):1236-1247. Wagner, Richard K., and Robert J. Sternberg 1985 Practical intelligence in real world pursuits: The role of tacit knowledge. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 48:436-458.
Representative terms from entire chapter: