Tag Archives: Britain

Review: Engineering Labour

Peter Meiksins and Chris Smith (eds), Engineering labour. Technical workers in comparative perspective. London, New-York: Verso, 1996.

Review by Charles Gadéa

This collective book is based on six case studies of engineers in Britain, Germany, France, USA, Sweden and Japan. It shows the importance of national differences in the training and the organization of engineering labour. In the two last chapters, Peter Meiksins and Chris Smith address the common issues that emerge from the case studies. They consider that the engineers play an ambiguous role within the enterprise as intermediate workers, engaging in complex and contradictory relationships with both employers and manual workers. These tensions, combined with local specificities, explain national configurations. Yet, at the same time, the authors stress that “there is not an infinite variety of ways of producing engineers. ”

“We know that there are underlying structural realities, but their effects are mediated in complex ways. We know institutional formation varies, but not infinitely. We know that the agencies involved in formation – the state, capital, labour, occupational associations- are common to all the societies, yet organized differently.” (p. 236)

Thus, the main question is how can we synthesize these variations into a limited number of models. According to Meiksins and Smith there are four main models which describe the ways of producing engineering workforce and define the social position of engineers. The first model is the craft model, in which engineers and technical workers are skilled workers at the top of the hierarchy of industrial workers: “the ‘engineer’ is constituted not by the possession of credentials, but by the laborious acquisition of practical experience” (p. 238). The second one, the managerial model, defines engineers as part of the managerial people and quite often they are trained in formal educational institutions that teach universal skills that can be easily transferred and adapted to different situations. In the third case, the “estate organization” is characterized by a stratified hierarchy of technical occupations, with formal school trained and rather elitist professionals on the one hand, but also a variety of other technical workers with claims to be recognized as engineers, on the other hand. The fourth and last model, the “company centred” model, is degree-based; the engineers are trained at the university, but the new staff are recruited by and promoted into the company; people are encouraged to show a sense of solidarity with the firm viewed as a whole rather than develop strong occupational identities and professional associations.