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This page originally authored by Jennifer Puharich (2007).
This page has been revised by James Hanson (2008).
This page has been revised by Gillian Gunderson (2009).

The Multi-Skilled Worker

Post-Fordism refers to the transformation of the way in which labour is structured and the evolution of the workforce. Emphasis is placed upon “decentralization, flexibility and the widespread use of [computer] technology in organizations” (Brehony, 2005). Particular attention is placed on teamwork abilities and the dominance of the multi-skilled worker (Behrisch, 2002).

From a post-Fordist perspective, fewer workers are required to now satisfy working demands; however, workforce participants must now possess a multitude of skills or abilities, should consistently demonstrate flexibility and must be willing to participate in career upgrading and life-long learning programs. Post-Fordism involves an active participant in workplace initiatives, as well as, skill enrichment with a clear demise in the partitioning of skills. Key markers in this change result in organization that move from structures of standardization and centralized control to customization and autonomy and accountability (Reigeluth, 1999).

Post-Fordism also signifies changes in the “pattern of work, production and consumption” and the importance of an economic identity shaped by participants (both workers and consumers) within this sphere (Heffernan, 2002). This change in work patterns also implies a corresponding change in Instructional Organizations which educate workers for the organizations of the Information age (Reigeluth, 1999). It is this point where the needs of the workforce influence change in the education system through skill requirements and minimum expectations.

Traditional Factory

Origin: Fordism

Beginning in the early twentieth century, Henry Ford, of the Ford Motor Company, introduced a revolutionary form of workplace organization whereby single task machines were arranged for production along an uninterrupted assembly line. This innovation “transformed production from small to large scale and reduced the costs of production” (Edgell, 2006). Fordism is characterized by the polarization of abilities; workers participate in strict supervised regiments of work compartmentalized by limited skill (Mathews, 1989).

Organizations under the Fordist perspectives produce standardized commodities by means of inflexible production with each phase of the labour process regulated into specific sections and completed by individual workers (Brehony, 2005). A strong correlation exists between the “mass production of standardized goods . . . and the mass consumption” of those products (Heffernan, 2000).

The rigidity of Fordism led to the alienation of workers and promoted deskilling of the labor force (Edgell, 2006). The negative effects on workers were two-fold: firstly, productivity was weakened causing profits to decline; and secondly, the inflexibility of the Fordist system meant that it was ill-prepared to cope with variations in the market and the new demand for specialized products. Customers were often saturated with mass produced items rather than the “more individualized and higher-quality products” which became so highly sought after (Edgell, 2006).

last updated Jan 27, 2008 - James Hanson


Post-Fordism’s general influence, while popular in the 1980’s, was already in decline by the mid-1990s; however, starting in the early 1990s, post-Fordism was, and is continuing to be, used in educational analysis (McGee & Green, 2008; Rikowski, 2008). There have been many assessments of post-Fordism; a majority of the assessments failed to find the changes that were suggested by the post-Fordism theory (Brehonya & Deemb, 2005; Carter, 1997; Clark, n.d.). Hampson, Ewer, and Smith (1994) found the continued use of post-Fordism “interesting because it raises the question of how a discredited doctrine remains influential in the teeth of intense academic criticism” (p. 231).

Academic criticism of post-Fordism came from several fronts. As a term, post-Fordism became overused and entailed a variety of definitions (Carter, 1997).

The transition from Fordism to post-Fordism was criticized as an artificial division that did not exist. Fordist conditions existed alongside post-Fordist (Burbules & Torres, 2000). Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes took place in the workplace (Kumar, 1995).

Post-Fordism failed to take into account major areas of influence. Class was treated as the only active social force, leaving out race and gender (Carter, 1997; Clark, n.d.)

Flexible specialization, a key approach to post-Fordism, meant that workers would take responsibility for their own learning, and adapt to change and develop new skills. This was not reflected in the workplace; in fact, the opposite was found (Burbules & Torres, 2000). Burbules and Torres (2000) stated that “to drastically overhaul education systems on the basis of such problematic assumptions about the post-Fordist workplace may be in the immediate interests of many types of employers, but it is not clear that it will effectively serve the broader interest of society, let alone workers in general” (p. 47). In addition, when commenting on the oft-quoted example of industrial districts in Italy, Clark (n.d.) noted the irony that ”the most widely cited models of such workplaces were designed, in part, to circumvent the statutory provision of benefits that included employer funded general education for the workforce” (para 8).

See Also

Curriculum Implications


  • Behrisch, T., Hayter, R. & Barnes, T. (Winter 2002/2003). ’I don’t really like the mill; in fact, I hate the mill’: Changing your vocationlism under fordism and post-fordism in Powell River, British Columbia. BC Studies, Issue 136, p.73.
  • Brehony, K. J., Deem, R. (July 2005). Challenging the post-fordist/flexible organization thesis: The case of reformed educational organizations. British Journal of Sociology of Education, 26 (3), 395-414.
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  • Morrow, R. A. & Torres, C. A. (2000). The state, globalization, and educational policy. In N. C. Burbules, & C. A. Torres (Eds.), Globalization and education: Critical perspectives (pp. 27-56). New York: Routledge.
  • Reigeluth, C. M.(1999) What is instructional-design theory and how is it changing? In C. Reigeluth (Ed.), Instructional-design theories and models: A new paradigm of instructional theory, Vol 2. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
  • Rikowski, G. (2008). Post-Fordism and schools in England. Retrieved January 18, 2009, from Flow of Ideas