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At Work, Skills Become Multidimensional

What can we learn from the work lives of these employees that will help high school students and young adults succeed? One observation is that these workers move through their days following a routine that enables them to accomplish specific tasks. Their actions are often simultaneously social, physical, and intellectual. Most important, they are always tailored to the task at hand. While they clearly use their technical and academic skills to do their jobs--as, for instance, the survey chief calculates construction tolerances and the vocational nurse draws on her knowledge of human physiology, behavior, and disease--these skills are used in concert with their ability to work comfortably with others, communicate effectively, and comply with outside standards. In effect, they work inside a specific work culture, and while doing so they exhibit vocational personalities (the survey chief's algebraic mind, Irene's commentary on her patient's smoking).

Social scientists call these work cultures communities of practice. This idea is useful to educators because it emphasizes the fact that, at work, skills are practiced as an amalgamation of knowledge, talents, abilities, behaviors, and values. Furthermore, the concept enables an investigation of the following questions:

An analysis of these issues will draw upon details from the case studies described above (Stasz et al., 1996; Stasz & Brewer, 1999), but also include information gathered at the other two firms of the study--a microprocessor manufacturer and a traffic management agency. Summary tables will present information gathered at all four firms. A total of seven jobs will be discussed, including:

Academic Skills
The employees described in the field observations display a comfortable mastery of the academic underpinnings of their jobs. Of the seven occupations examined, five required algebra or higher mathematics; several required specific scientific knowledge. These findings concur with other research, suggesting that it is important for students to have "the ability to do math at the ninth grade level or higher" (Murnane & Levy, 1996). Math requirements for most of the jobs researchers observed exceeded ninth grade algebra.

The survey crew chief knows the math he needs to routinely calculate construction tolerances. Depending on the situation, these calculations can be straightforward or very complex, so he must be able to make them without fanfare or reference to instruction books. Inspectors also need sophisticated skills in reading blueprints, not only because a subway project yields a large number of complex drawings, but because they change frequently as the work progresses.

The LVN knows enough about human physiology and the prognosis of diseases to assess whether her patients need additional care from another health specialist. In addition, Irene is comfortable with the math skills embedded in her daily tasks: reading instruments, calculating dosages, checking IV drip rates, and tracking her car mileage. Similarly, technicians at both the microprocessor manufacturer and at the traffic management agency use a variety of math skills regularly throughout their work day.

The mathematics requirements for technical jobs run the gamut from very basic skills (e.g., adding numbers, calculating percentages) to complex applications of trigonometry (e.g., calculating spiral curves). Mathematics can be completely integrated within a discipline, as is the case with electronics, and therefore defined as part of the job. Or mathematics can be essential, but used infrequently, as is the case with the heath care aides. Though study participants often used familiar labels to speak about mathematics (e.g., algebra, trigonometry), they typically discussed mathematics in relation to operating specific equipment; rarely did they describe solving math problems in abstract "classroom" language. For example, when Irene described using percentages to figure insulin amounts, her math skills helped her follow a doctor's orders: "If the doctor says to give the patients 20 units of NPH [insulin], you have to know what--how is he using, what are his units? You have to know units in comparison to cc's or milligrams or what have you."

Table 1 shows the range of math skills our researchers observed and the tasks accomplished with these skills.

Table 1: Mathematics Skills and Tasks
JOBS SKILLS TASK EXAMPLES
Survey Inspector
  • Trigonometry
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Statistics
  • Measures track and compares with design specifications
Construction Inspector
  • Algebra
  • Geometry
  • Trigonometry
  • Calculates distances and weights from blueprints
  • Checks construction projects for compliance with plan specification
Licensed Vocational Nurse
  • Basic math
  • Calculates flow of fluid in intravenous pump
  • Calculates percentages to check doses of medication
Home Health Aide
  • Basic math
  • Uses calculator to figure out mileage
  • Completes records
Test Technician
  • Basic math
  • Statistics
  • Calculates percentage (RPM) to determine how long a test should run
Equipment Technician
  • Any math related to basic electronics
  • Algebra
  • Statistics
  • Plots and reads a pressure graph
  • Reads and understands output from statistical analysis (e.g., standard deviations)
Traffic Signal Technician
  • Any math related to basic electronics
  • Algebra
  • Trigonometry
  • Calculus
  • Computes resistance to determine which type of wire to install
  • Sets controller timing at traffic intersections
  • Reads and understands sine waves in oscilloscope
NOTE: Skills in bold are used more often and are more central to the work.

The transformation of book knowledge becomes especially evident for science skills and knowledge; technical workers also need greater specialization in science than mathematics. For example, survey and construction inspectors need a good grasp of electronics, while licensed vocational nurses must have a command of frequently prescribed medications and common medical conditions. Often, understanding the practical connection between two or more disciplines is just as important as knowing one field well. Surveyors must know enough about lasers and electronics to use and maintain EDM guns; similarly technicians at both the chip manufacturer and traffic agency need to understand how electronics and electricity converge in their jobs to perform testing and maintenance tasks safely. The "academic" science evident in these jobs is varied and often specialized; often, the science content of these jobs derives from several academic disciplines. According to a health care supervisor, an LVN's medical knowledge or technical skills are necessary, but not sufficient to perform the job; the key is "the ability to problem solve and to assess the situation yourself without input from anybody else."

Technical workers' application of scientific principles is firmly tied to technology or tool use. The survey crew use sophisticated measuring devices, and the LVN uses a range of medical instruments and devices. So in the application of a scientific (or mathematical) concept to a job task, workers draw on their ability to use sophisticated tools. These tools can be used properly only if workers know additional mathematical and scientific concepts--concepts that inform tool operation itself or that enable problem solving after measurements are made. A supervisor explained that traffic technicians need to be familiar with different kinds of semiconductors: "They have to have the expertise to know, not so much how to construct [a semiconductor], but they need to know the theory behind semiconductors, behind erasable program readable memories--that type of stuff. That's where the computer technology comes in."

It is impossible to discuss skills in technical jobs without referring to technology. The technologies present in the worksite studies make use of other disciplines, including mathematics, science, and communication, but technology can shape the nature of the skills needed. Obviously, workers need to learn how to operate and use the technology and to keep up with technology changes. But technology can also affect academic skill needs in different ways. Technology may make some academic skills obsolete; the extensive use of calculators serves as an obvious example. Alternatively, technology advances may significantly change the academic skill demands, as in the case of traffic signal technicians where digital systems replaced electromechanical devices. But it is certain that ties to the academic curricula or to the academic skills embedded in technology need to be made explicit.

Table 2 provides an overview of the science and technology applications most apparent in observations of workers in these jobs.

Table 2: Science and Technology Applications
JOBS SCIENCE/DISCIPLINARY KNOWLEDGE TECHNOLOGY/TOOL EXAMPLES
Survey Inspector
  • Laser
  • Electronics
  • Hazardous materials
  • Calculator
  • Global positioning system
  • Electronic distance measurement (EDM) machine
  • Back site
  • Linear rod
  • "Homemade" tools (e.g., level)
Construction Inspector
  • Various specialties (e.g., concrete, electrical, metallurgy, communications, mining, mechanical)
  • Hazardous materials
  • Basic tools (e.g., tape, square, level, calculator, safety equipment)
Licensed Vocational Nurse
  • Basic assessment medications
  • Wound care
  • CPR
  • Suction machine
  • Intravenous (IV) pump
  • Blood draw
  • Catheter
  • Portable Doppler
  • Ventilator
Home Health Aide
  • Basic assessment (e.g., skin care)
  • CPR
  • Vital signs
  • Blood pressure cuff, thermometer, stethoscope
  • Hoyer lift
  • Humidifier
  • Suction machine
  • Ventilator
Test Technician
  • Electronics
  • Centrifuge
  • Oscilloscope
  • Microscope
  • Specialized microchip testing equipment
Equipment Technician
  • Hazardous materials
  • Electronics
  • Pneumatic
  • High-vacuum
  • Basic chemistry
  • Electro-mechanical aptitude
  • Photo lithography machine
  • Acid processing machine
  • Microscope
  • Specialized manufacturing equipment (e.g., implanter, sputter, diffuser)
Traffic Signal Technician
  • Electricity
  • Electronics
  • Hazardous materials
  • Oscilloscope (digital and analog)
  • Digital millimeter
  • Basic tools (e.g., soldering iron, pliers, socket wrench, safety equipment)
  • Microwave communication
  • Portable computer

These findings suggest that many technical jobs demand a wide range of math, science, and technology skills; they also reveal that each job demands a particular mix of talents. Consequently, specialized training, either on the job or in classrooms, may be essential. Perhaps the only generalization possible about the academic demands of these jobs is that they all require employees to observe and assess situations from an educated perspective and to reason from facts, tests, and measurements.

"Generic" Skills and Work-Related Dispositions
Generic skills such as problem solving, teamwork, and accurate and appropriate communication are central to the performance of frontline workers. However, employers and employees use the terminology of generic skills (e.g., "problem solving," "teamwork") to refer to a range of behaviors and activities, which become specialized according to a task, a worker's role in an organization, and the organization's culture.

PROBLEM SOLVING

Problem solving situations are similar for technician jobs, but different for inspection and health care jobs. For the equipment and traffic signal technicians who maintain, operate, and repair electronic equipment, problem solving mostly means troubleshooting. When the equipment or system breaks down, they must know how to troubleshoot--to identify the problem and fix it.

Problem solving for construction inspectors largely means quality assurance and control. A typical inspection problem occurs when an inspector identifies some discrepancy between the specifications and the construction and then must pinpoint the source of the discrepancy and determine how to correct the error. Survey inspectors view problem solving similarly. However, unlike any of the other jobs studied, survey inspection continually requires mathematical problem solving.

In contrast, problem solving for home health aides and LVNs is primarily situation assessment. The home care provider is the "eyes and ears" of a patient care team, where each patient represents a unique "problem." The home care workers gather information about a patient's condition, assess and interpret that information in the home care context, and report back to the case manager who can determine if the patient's condition warrants something other than the current treatment. In addition, the home health provider educates patients and household caregivers in ways that assist proper treatment--she solves (or even prevents) a problem by instructing family members about how best to administer medicines, feed, or even cheer up patients.

TEAMWORK

Teamwork is more than "just getting along." The study revealed three types of work organizations which require somewhat different team-oriented skills and behaviors (see Table 3).

Table 3: Characteristics of Work Groups
JOBS AUTONOMOUS/
SELF-MANAGING TEAMS
KNOWLEDGE DISTRIBUTED AMONG TEAM INDEPENDENT WORK
Survey Inspector
  • Chief manages crew
  • Chief plus two instrument men

Construction Inspector
  • Construction specialty
  • Independent inspection, but informal, "virtual" team
Home Health Provider
  • Patient care team with many specialists
  • Distributed authority
  • Patient care in home
Test Technician
  • "Leaderless" team

  • Independently performs tests
Equipment Technician
  • May specialize in particular machines
  • Independently repairs and maintains machines
Traffic Signal Technicians

  • Shop work
  • Team for short-term problem solving (e.g., emergencies)

Knowledge, skills, and sometimes authority may be distributed among team members. The survey team, for example, is comprised of individuals of different rank and skill, with the chief serving as the acknowledged leader. Similarly, home health providers are members of a team, which may include doctors, nurses, physical therapists, or other specialists. This team is characterized by both distributed knowledge and authority linked to special certification. It is key that LVNs and home health aides know their own areas of focus and authority as well as when they need to call on the expertise of more highly trained team members. They must function autono-mously while simultaneously accepting oversight from others.

Teams can be formally recognized and supported by the organization, or informally constituted by team members themselves. Test technicians and survey inspectors work in autonomous, self-managing teams, with defined tasks and the authority to manage those tasks on their own. In contrast, construction inspectors operate as members of a "virtual" team that is not a formal entity, but a creation of the community of practice. Each inspector is responsible for inspections in one area (e.g., concrete, electrical); but the process works best when each is on the alert for activities at a site relevant to other inspectors' specialties.

Some work, of course, is independent. For the most part, traffic signal technicians and equipment technicians work independently, but they may form temporary teams to solve problems out in the field or to install new equipment.

DISPOSITIONS AND OTHER CHARACTERISTICS

The workers interviewed for this research were unanimous in the view that dispositions can "make or break" success on the job. They frequently mentioned the importance of attributes such as being hard-working, self-directed, or persistent. Beyond that, however, dispositions seem tailored to the work context.

Table 4 identifies three overlapping themes describing workers' notions about workplace dispositions: desirable traits, behavioral norms, and standards of performance. The theory in this area is not well developed. The classification in the following table represents an effort to begin to describe workplace dispositions. Desirable traits refer to characteristics that define dispositions desirable for a job's basic tasks or for success within a particular setting. For example, unsupervised traffic signal technicians must be self-motivated to complete assigned work and must tolerate unpredictability such as when a regular day is turned upside down by emergency calls.

Table 4: Dispositions and Other Characteristics
JOBS DESIRABLE TRAITS BEHAVIORAL NORMS STANDARDS OF PERFORMANCE
Survey Inspector
  • Loves a challenge
  • Attention
  • Cooperates
  • Anticipates problems
  • Mutual respect
  • Reliance
  • Confidence
  • Prepared to work
  • Professional standards
  • Assumes liability
Construction Inspector
  • Manages people
  • Plans ahead
  • Deals with confrontation
  • Independent
  • Know and do your own job
  • Ask for help
  • Conscientious
  • Vigilant
  • Assumes liability
  • Integrity
Home Health Provider
  • Independent
  • Tolerant of oversight
  • Accepts flexible scheduling
  • Friendliness
  • "Bedside manners"
  • Patience
  • Individual standard
  • Professional standard
  • Personal liability
Test Technician
  • Flexible
  • Willingness to do repetitive work
  • Team work
  • Willing to learn

  • Accurate and thorough
Equipment Technician
  • Independent
  • Handles pressure
  • "Man over machine"
  • Flexible

  • Individual performance
  • Affects productivity
Traffic Signal Technician
  • Self-motivated
  • Tolerant of variable pace
  • Don't pass problems off
  • Don't slack off
  • Individual standard
  • Assumes liability

The community of practice defines norms of behavior for a work group. Survey inspectors, for example, described their team as an "intimate situation" in which members rely on one another in an atmosphere of mutual respect. Traffic signal technicians work independently under demanding conditions. For instance, each technician typically maintains about 100 signals, a significant load. In this environment, technicians can't slack off and maintain their performance. If a technician doesn't keep up with his maintenance schedule or doesn't solve the problems he encounters, other technicians will have to resolve them later.

Standards of performance also help define appropriate dispositions. Assuming responsibility is a serious business for inspectors, signal technicians, and home care providers because of legal liabilities attached to their work. The different standards held by inspectors and contractors, for example, create a natural tension on the job. Inspectors worry about quality control, and must negotiate with contractors whose incentives include completing a job on time and within budget. In this environment, inspectors must anticipate each inspection task, be vigilant, and be prepared for daily confrontations. Home health providers must meet the expectations of the supervising nurse and are also personally liable if their actions cause harm to a patient.

COMMUNICATIONS

Frontline workers' ability to communicate--both face to face or in writing--is key to their success. However, the complexity and sophistication of their communications often depend on whether they need to interact with internal, external, or multiple audiences. With the possible exception of home health aides, most workers communicate chiefly with internal audiences--members of their work group, other coworkers, and supervisors. Such a situation permits informality and the use of a technical vocabulary. Home health providers need additional verbal agility and patience to communicate with patients and their families about complex and emotionally charged health issues. On occasion, traffic signal engineers working in the field have to communicate with motorists, the "customers" of the traffic signal system.

By far the most common purpose for which technical workers use communications skills is to convey an appropriate fact accurately. Home health providers report on the status of patient functioning and log their own activities, including facts such as mileage driven. Survey inspectors call out measurements. The second most common purpose is to convey procedural information--instructions. Accuracy, speed, and clarity are highly valued in these instances.

An amicable and professional demeanor is highly valued in all spoken communications. Such a demeanor is perceived to improve the ability and willingness of the listener to engage in communication. This attribute is particularly important for jobs that require the worker to communicate directly with the public.

Among the study participants, construction inspectors needed the most sophisticated communication skills since they work in a potentially adversarial position to contractors. Inspectors negotiate with construction foremen when specifications are not met and ensure that the problem will be fixed without antagonizing the contractor and making future exchanges confrontational. This situation requires inspectors to "know how to talk to" contractors, to give them a fair hearing, and to maintain standards under pressure.


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