EDPS 360 (A2) Fall 2013

Still Learning to Labour?

In Cooperative Blog Posts on October 2, 2013 at 8:17 pm


Paul Willis is a British social scientist, born in Wolverhampton in 1950. In our excerpt from his book Learning to Labour we are introduced to his study on “why working class kids get working class jobs.”

Willis mentions that around the same time his book was written, the age upon which students were permitted to drop out of school was raised to 16 in England. The age was likely raised in order to ensure more educated and therefore more skilled laborers. As Willis says in his introduction, this event caused people to become more interested in the relation between class, education, and work.

(A short lecture on cultural analysis by Willis)

Also at this time,

the Education (Work Experience) Act was introduced. This act allowed students to get work experience during their final year of school, thus again creating more skilled laborers.


Thinking back to when I was deciding on the path I would take after high school, my choices were strongly governed by the requirement that it involve a furthering of my education. I remember considering, for the most part, that the trades were slightly beneath my potential and feeling that I would be settling if I chose a trade as my profession.

“Too often occupational and educational talents are thought of as on a shallowing line of shrinking capacity with working class people at its lower reaches unquestioningly taking on the worst jobs thinking somehow, ‘I accept that I’m so stupid that it’s fair and proper that I should spend the rest of my life screwing nuts onto wheels in a car factory’.”

I felt Willis laid out my general line of thought on the subject in a way. Not that I considered someone in the trades to be “stupid”, but that pursuing a further education added more value and respect for an individual somehow. I’m certain that the emphasis placed on me by both my parents and the schools on the importance of grades (via advanced placement programs and provincial achievement tests) played a heavy role in this line of thought.

My choices led me towards a degree in Mathematics (as it was a subject I had a strong interest in) but I had no aspirations towards any specific profession. After graduating, with no direction in terms of career, I ended up finding work in the oil/gas industry as an NDE technician (essentially, inspecting the integrity of various equipment). It became apparent to me over the two years working in refineries across Canada that my preconceived notions of workers in the trades were fairly unwarranted (although not all: gender divides were fairly evident for example, potentially relatable to Willis description of “a form of patriarchal male domination and sexism within working class structure”).

I found the articles on the incoming declines in the blue-collar work of the oil/gas industry particularly interesting as a result of some of my experiences. As a precursor, I realize this is all highly anecdotal and based off of my interactions with only a handful of trades. That being said, I found that the feeling of job security seemed very localized to Alberta. When working outside of Alberta conversations seemed to fall towards a lack of job security much more frequently and with a larger sense of severity. Many times it lead to conversations of how they felt pressure towards uprooting their families and moving to Alberta. It was also incredibly common to work in Alberta with people from all over North America. Within my own group of 10 or so co-workers working out of Edmonton, none of them had originally come from or started their careers in Alberta. In this way it seems that, in Alberta, the wealth and security these careers hold almost pushes them out of the “lowly” nature commonly associated with working class jobs.


Willis’ Learning to Labour is an examination of the nature of the paradigm in which those in working-class settings seemingly accept their position and do not want or realize the potential for social advancement, particularly through education. I found the mindset of the students he examined in a working-class industrial town in England to be similar to that of the two maritime boys from Goin’ Down the Road. The line from the film in which the main character states that he would not need education to work in the coal mines, cannery, etc seems reflective of the attitudes possessed by the students in Learning to Labour, as they will most likely stay in Hammertown, and find work at one of the city’s metalworks or similar industrial outfit. Seeing the opportunity to replicate their own social standing as being the easiest of options perpetuates the notion of a lack of class mobility in modern society. Perhaps the few boys who stay in school for the full program will move away to attend a college or university, and seek careers in higher social strata than their comrades who remain in Hammertown, but they seem to be in the minority in this case study, as the author cites that 79% of the workforce in Hammertown in in labour.

As Willis states in the opening to his text, “The difficult thing to explain about how middle class kids get middle class jobs is why others let them. The difficult thing to explain about how working class kids get working class jobs is why they let themselves.” By which I interpret his meaning to be: for middle class children with opportunities, they should be encouraged to seek the highest potential they can, and for the working class students, why do they not try to ameliorate their condition, rather than repeating the cycle of working in the factories and lacking education?

I find that it has been my personal experience, as well as what I have read scholastically that social classes tend to be self-replicating. Most of my friends whose parents were labourers went either to a trade school or no school at all after high school, and nearly all my friends who have university-educated parents have attended university or college. The middle class seems to be able to just walk into middle class jobs, and strive for the upper class positions, while the labouring class seems to be content to simply continue on in trade work for the most part.

By Ryan:

My portion of the blog post is in relation to the “Blue-collar bastion” article in the May 20th, 2012 edition of the Edmonton Journal that can be found in the folder entitled “Social Class Basket” in the class Google docs linked to on the blog website.

I have a handful of friends that enjoy few things more than rubbing in my face the advantages of being in the trades as opposed to being a University student. They brag how they get paid EI premiums while in school, only spend 8 weeks in class while they make full time wages the rest of the time, receive a grant from the government for school and some of their employers even pay for the remainder of their tuition and textbook fees. Their favourite line is that I am $25,000 in debt and they have a $25,000 down payment on a house waiting for them.

I am happy for one friend because he is working to become a journeyman plumber, he has always wanted to be in a trade, and plumbing and gas-fitting has always been of interest for him. As an aside, he is a “working class kid [who got a] working class [job]”, as Willis writes about in our primary reading for Thursday’s class. My other friend is in the trades because he was going to be making good enough money at 18 years old where he could buy a car, frequent restaurants and bars, and advertise to the world that he has money. That second friend hates his job.

I want money to provide for my future family, to be able to put granite counter tops in my future kitchen, to buy my future wife the Ford F-150 she has always wanted (and pay for the heinous amount of gas it will require), and to subscribe to NFL Sunday Ticket so I can lock myself away every Sunday, but most of all I want to be earning that money doing something I am passionate about and love. Is this idealistic? “Give me a hell, give me a yeah”, as Rev Theory would say, but ideals exist for a reason.

Speaking only from the perspective of the tradespeople I know personally, the vast majority started because they could earn good money fast. They didn’t think about the potential drawbacks and how that might affect their future. Many are also completely ignorant to the advantages a University education provides. A lot of the money my friends spend is on new cars, quads, or camping trailers, and those things will all be gone in a few years – they’re short term gain. They incorrectly view a University education as the same thing. In 30 years I will still have an Education degree, it will still be earning me money to support my family in some way or another, and their broken down Dodge Dart will be in my co-worker’s Industrial Arts shop being dismantled.

Trades have some obvious advantages, and University isn’t for everyone (just as I don’t think I would excel in the trades), but money isn’t everything either – the only argument my friends ever seem to have.

I don’t really have any questions to pose, I just want to hear comments any of you may have in relation to this. Being in Alberta, many of us must have stories about the University vs. trades debate.

  1. 500 words becomes 1500 words. Magical.

    Please share some of your stories, I am looking forward to taking some fresh new talking points back to my friends and family about this debate/issue? Can we call it an issue? Conflict?

    See you in class.

  2. I find this topic very interesting, because I broke out of my class in comparison to my family. My larger family is mostly farmers and trade workers. Most of them did not go to post-secondary. I am the only child of 3 to go to post-secondary. My father did go for a bit but what he went for he no longer does and is very much in the labour class. For myself I could have easily fell into the labour market like my parents, which there is nothing wrong with. However, I had a calling to be a teacher and made sure I followed my dreams.

    Coming from a small rural, aboriginal and farming community, I see regularly children falling into the class trap. The idea what was good enough for my parents is good enough for me. Or the Parents have the idea if it was good enough for me it is good enough for my child. It breaks my heart when I see students who have no aspirations of being better. Not to say that I want the child who wants to work in a truck shop become a doctor, no, but I would hope he or she would want to get a mechanic’s licence and get paid just a little bit more then a shop labourer.

    • I appreciate this comment because I’ve long suspected that teaching may be a primary pathway of class mobility. My experience is limited to Alberta and China, but, anecdotally, there is fairly compelling evidence. Perhaps the reason for this is that teachers tend to occupy a relatively high status position, particularly in rural or small urban settings, where the class structure is relatively flat. In my experience as a small towner, teachers are often pretty high up the ladder in terms of income, job security, and status (community respect), and often able to convert these capital assets into other forms, such as small business/land ownership, political power, etc.

      On whether or not going on to do the same things as one’s parents or slotting into a position that involves failing to aspire, I’m not sure that this is something to see as a tragedy. When it comes right down to it, unless you have a radical vision of an economy that values all jobs equally, someone must do these low status jobs.

  3. I too have a vested interest in a topic like this. Like Cheyenne, I have actually followed a similar trend in that I have “broken away” from the norm as well as from expectations. As a kid from rural southern Alberta, very few of my friends, and few of those from my grad class had aspirations outside of the oil patch; though there were people that had little interest in the patch, they tended to be tradespeople who were already involved in their respective trades. I actually had a rather large grad class, but even with that being said, few of us went the post-secondary route. That’s not to say that the patch is the equivalent of grunt work for mere pennies, but I think the issue is actually quite similar once the money element is removed. Maybe I’m a bit off point, but I’ll try to get some kind of useful point out there.

    In the rural south, even the economically elite tend to be linked more to oil than to education. With this kind of influence, and with this kind of image in mind, I believe it is hard for kids to escape the idea of big money. Rigging is just a fact of life; intelligent or not, young adults can make mounds of money, and I have known more than a few individuals who prefer money over any kind of educational advancement. I think this presents a sort of flaw in the system. It comes back to a question of what we value as a society. I think so many students have already checked out by the time grade 12 kicks around, and so I have to ask, are we really doing all that we can to prepare these students for life outside of the education system? This issue ties into society, education, philosophy, and life in general. And to be completely honest, there is no black and white, only grey.

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