workers more responsibility. In addition, it is claimed that companies aiming to become high performance will need to make larger investments in training and offer higher salaries for the payoff of increased skills and productivity (see Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce, 1990; Carnevale et al., 1988; SCANS, 1992; Appelbaum and Batt, 1993; Brown et al., 1993). In this atmosphere of change there is a tendency to speak about U.S. workers pejoratively—to worry that our increasingly "nonmale, nonwhite, and nonyoung" (Ehrlich and Garland, 1988) work force is poorly trained and poorly skilled and therefore ill equipped to cope with new workplace demands (see also U.S. Department of Education and U.S. Department of Labor, 1988; Carnevale et al., 1988).
Despite such claims about the skills, including the literacies, required in reorganized, technologically sophisticated workplaces, as well as about the skills that workers are assumed to lack, little is known about the actual demands of these workplaces or the kinds of training that new jobs might require. (For a review of existing research, see Hull et al., 1996; for recent examples of research on literacy, skills, and work, see Hull, 1997). In fact, most of the complaints about worker "illiteracy" arise not from detailed observations of work but from surveys and anecdotal reports that rely largely on the perspectives of managers (Baba, 1991; Darrah, 1996; Appelbaum and Batt, 1993). It is not clear, then, just what literate capabilities are required in the new workplaces or even what literate capabilities workers possess or lack—although such information would seem to be crucial for reconceptualizing secondary and postsecondary schooling, vocational training, and workplace education efforts.
This chapter is drawn from a larger research project designed to fill in some of these gaps. The aims of the project were several: to develop a methodology for investigating literate activities in workplace settings; to document the actual literate activities in a high-performance workplace versus a traditionally organized one; to document the work activities associated with self-directed work teams and high-performance work; to make recommendations about literacy education and training for the present; and to find innovative ways to introduce educators, researchers, and laypeople to the changing face of work.
This chapter focuses on a subset of the larger project having to do with literate activities and working identities. Current public debates and concerns about skills and skill requirements are, I would argue, efforts to develop a national consensus about new working identities—the ways of thinking, acting, talking, and valuing that are believed to be appropriate for the new worker. As we will see, a literate identity is an important aspect of a worker's sense of himself or herself in a high-performance workplace. But, as we shall also see, it is perilously easy for companies to so structure and constrain work activities that—even at a high-performance plant—the identities that workers develop around literacy are conflictual and limiting.