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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Mechanics of class : social structure and action in the apprenticeable skilled trades at a Canadian naval dockyard Meredith, John Franklin


Commentary on skilled trades occupations in Canada has been framed by two main paradigms: The dominant policy discourse has applied human capital theory to the dynamics of the skilled labour supply, often concentrating on intractable “problems” such as low apprenticeship participation and completion rates and an extreme gender imbalance in the trades. Sociological research has portrayed trades occupations as positions of structurally reproduced social disadvantage. This study adopts an alternate, neo-Weberian framework centred on the theory of economic social action. Social structure is treated in strictly nominalistic terms, and social action is rooted in the interest-oriented behaviour of socially embedded individuals. The study, undertaken in a large public-sector shipyard, involved both a pen-and-paper survey (N=509) of skilled trades workers and ten focus group interviews with 49 respondents from labour and management. The research questions addressed indicators of structural (dis)advantage and reproduction, as well as the specific mechanisms of social action operating within the study environment. The population shows a very distinct profile in terms of gender, ethnicity, and educational investment. Data on earnings, job security, and working conditions dispel any suspicion of economic disadvantage. Although a high proportion of incumbents have family connections to the skilled trades, an analysis of their siblings’ occupations refutes the supposition of structural determinism through the family. Instead, it is argued that both the social profile of the workforce and the high density of family and network connections reflect the use of “bridging” and “bonding” social capital strategies by study population members. The operative mechanisms include formal elements of the organization’s hiring practices, as well as institutionalized group norms and workplace culture. Through a “separatist” discourse that invokes notions of both “trade stigma” and “trade pride,” incumbents ascribe a particular set of cognitive and moral attributes to trades workers, which also contribute to defining the formal and informal membership requirements for their occupations. By approaching occupations as sites of economic social action, this research concludes that some of the intractable “problems” in Canada’s apprenticeable trades reflect individual behaviours that are enabled and incited by institutional features integral to the present skilled trades system.

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