chapter  3
14 Pages

A question of skill

There is much to recommend the view that the British after 1870 were better suited to industrial tasks than were the populations of other lands. Britain had achieved a high degree of urbanization well in advance of the nations of continental Europe (with the exception of the Netherlands) and North America, and it had industrialized first. By the late nineteenth century most of the work-force “came from urban, industrial backgrounds and had a long tradition of industrial discipline and skills” (Harley 1974:394-5). The habits and abilities that modern manufacturing required ought to have been more widely diffused and more deeply embedded than in countries like Germany and the United States where much of the work-force consisted of “recent immigrants to urban areas from peasant backgrounds,” and there is indeed evidence that Britain was rich in skill. The labor force in both construction and steelmaking in the early twentieth century included a considerably higher proportion of skilled employees in Sheffield and Birmingham than in Pittsburgh. The differential between the wage of the skilled craftsmen and the unskilled worker was narrower in Britain than in the United States across a wide range of occupations in the decades down to the First World War (More 1980:171-3; and Harley 1974:395-6, 399, and 403). Skill was thus sufficiently abundant that a large pay premium was not necessary to attract it.