[OPE-L:3416] More on skilled labour

Allin Cottrell (cottrell@wfu.edu)
Tue, 15 Oct 1996 08:12:33 -0700 (PDT)

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On Sat, 12 Oct 1996, Steve Keen wrote:

> Let's apply the use-value/exchange-value analysis to this.

[i.e. the analysis of skilled versus simple labour]

> The exchange-value of the "commodity" training will, like all other
> commodities, be the exchange-value of the commodities used up in its
> production.

A side point, but surely not. The exchange value of the
commodities used up in its production plus the surplus

> The use-value of this commodity is its ability to increase
> the value-productivity of the input "commodity" unskilled labor, by
> transforming it into a new "commodity", skilled labor. This use-value
> can be expressed in quantitative terms as an increase in the productive
> ability of skilled labor over unskilled.

What happens in the course of training/education is either
(a) that the trainee is made more productive at the task
he/she was working at before (in which case the increased
productivity can be quantified in physical terms), or (b)
the trainee is equipped for some more demanding sort of work
that he/she was not capable of before, in which case we
cannot make any before vs. after comparison of physical
productivity. I think the latter is more typical, but in an
attempt to simplify a complex topic, let's consider the
former case.

Without any training, one can do two-finger typing. With
practice, one can get quite accurate at this, but never very
fast. Suppose that as a result of taking a course in
touch-typing, a typist is able to double his/her speed, at a
given degree of accuracy.

Let me define the "Sweezy coefficient" for a given sort of
skilled labour as the ratio of (a) the sum of direct labour
time plus indirect labour time "transmitted" via the
training process to (b) the direct labour time alone. What
might be an upper bound to the Sweezy coefficient for a
proficient touch-typist? Well, let's suppose it takes two
months of one-on-one tutorials to learn (clearly
over-generous). And suppose that the trainer has a Sweezy
coefficient of 2.0. Then that's six months of simple labour
equivalent. Now suppose the typist's skill is depreciated
over a period of 5 years. Then the typist's Sweezy
coefficient is 1.10 (six months being 10 percent of 5

Thus, as a result of the training, a doubling of the
worker's productivity is associated with only a 10 percent
increase (presumably less) in the worker's Sweezy
coefficient. Does that indicate a problem with the
Sweezy-type analysis?

Well, first consider the situation from the point of view of
the rational allocation of labour. Given the numbers above,
it clearly makes no sense to leave any typists untrained.
The process of producing typescript via untrained labour is
dominated; it does not correspond to socially necessary

What would happen under capitalism? Suppose typists are
paid via piece rates. In that case the trained typist will
make double the hourly wage of the untrained (supposing that
both sorts of labour-power are in the market). Suppose
further that the workers pay for their own training, which
is itself supplied by a capitalist enterprise. If the
training costs 6 months' wages (once again, this is of
course too high), it will pay for itself in 6 months (via
the doubling of the wage), after which point the higher wage
is a clear gain for the worker. If workers could borrow to
pay for the training it would clearly be in their interest
to do so. But then we would not expect to find any
untrained typists in the labour market.

Now notice something else here -- if we follow Marx in
assuming that there are forces driving wages to a
"reproduction cost" minimum (allowing for some
historical-cultural element), the final result will not in
fact be a doubling of the typist's wage. Rather, the wage
will _end up_ increasing only by the amount required to
finance the training -- and the hourly wage of any remaining
untrained typists will fall below subsistence. In this way,
the untrained labour is driven out.

Under what circumstances would it _remain_ the case that
trained and untrained typing labour co-exist, with the
"discrepancy" noted above, namely that typists with a Sweezy
coefficient of 1.10 have double the productivity of those
with a coefficient of 1.0? Presumably, it would take the
imposition of restrictions on training. The logic would be
like this:

1. The skilled typists somehow restrict access to training.

2. In order to satisfy their requirements for the production
of typescript, capitalists have to hire both trained and
untrained labour-power.

3. The untrained workers have to be able to survive; their
wage must be at least at subsistence.

4. So the trained workers make double subsistence,
comprising a substantial gain even after the cost of
training is met.

Ricardo (as everyone knows) pointed out that the existence
of rent is due not to Nature's bountifulness, but rather to
Her niggardliness: it is because the best land is
restricted in supply that its owner receives differential
rent. The same sort of thing can be seen here. In the
hypothetical case above, the handsome wage for the skilled
typists is not due to their productivity as such, but due to
the fact that they have managed artificially to preserve a
pool of untrained typists.

I wonder how much of this Steve would agree with?

Allin Cottrell