Business, training and education : Sheffield circa 1880-1940
This thesis contributes to two important debates: the historical debate on the role of education and training in Britain's relative economic decline; and the debate on the relationship between education, training and business performance. Much of the research on education, training and economic growth has focused at the macro-level and been heavily informed by neo-classical assumptions which fail to take account of the dynamism and uncertainty inherent in the business environment. The relationship between education, training and business performance is therefore explored by developing a historical case-study approach based upon the Sheffield metal and engineering trades, c1880-1940. These were industries that were of strategic importance to the British economy and such a study allows for an exploration at the micro-level of the firm. The historical analysis is informed by the theory of business strategy. Unlike the neo-classical synthesis, this theory locates the firm in a specific historical context, defining it as a collection of related productive resources: physical and human. Thus the theory may be used as an analytical tool to examine the impact of product, process and organisational innovations upon human resource requirements. The thesis is founded on a strong empirical base and a major empirical building block is formed by developing a database which charts the career profiles of applied science graduates from the Sheffield University and its antecedent, the Sheffield Technical School. A key finding is that the relationship between education, training and business performance is a highly complex and contingent one and that simply more education and training is not the necessary medication for the nation's economic ills. Indeed, the education and training system must be carefully monitored in order to ensure that it provides the skills and knowledge that are appropriate to changing business needs. Another significant discovery is that education and training provision, prior to World War One, was generally adequate to Sheffield's business requirements; technical education became crucial to the manufacture of specialist steels, and in this key industry of the `second industrial revolution', Sheffield firms recruited metallurgy and engineering graduates and acquired a commanding technological lead over their German and American competitors. This sectoral analysis stands in stark contrast with the received wisdom which claims that Britain's relative economic decline was causally related to an under-investment in technical education and a failure to recruit scientific personnel. However, economic depression in the 1920s and consequent spending cuts led to a general weakening of the education and training system, not only in Sheffield but throughout the nation. Business demands for graduate metallurgists began to exceed the supply and, as the economy recovered in the 1930s, Sheffield firms experienced acute shortages of skilled labour. Shortages of technologists, technicians and craftsmen persisted into the 1950s and it appears that Sheffield entered the second half of the twentieth century with insufficient skilled human resources and without the necessary educational infrastructure to rapidly remedy this problem. In consequence, firms were unable to meet orders and product quality began to fail, creating a window of opportunity for foreign competitors to exploit. Two points follow from this finding: firstly, too much emphasis has been placed upon alleged educational inadequacies prior to World War One, whilst insufficient attention has been paid to the inter-war years and, secondly, the relationship between education, training and business performance appears to have a high degree of reciprocity, at least over the long-run.