Barely a day goes by without some politician talking earnestly about the importance of people acquiring new skills to enable them to play their part in the increasingly high-skilled economy, one that can compete with India and China.
But it is rare for anyone to query the exact nature of these skills. Thirty years ago we would have had no problem defining them: a skill was a form of hard technical ability underpinned by theoretical knowledge and understanding. A skilled worker was a cook, a tailor, a nurse, a carpenter, an electrician.
But today, the term describes not so much a technical ability as forms of desirable behaviour. With the shift from manufacturing to service-sector employment, new forms of skill have emerged: social, interpersonal, generic, "soft" and aesthetic.
At the same time, management theory stresses the need to standardise the quality of interactions between frontline service staff and customers and to make staff contribute more to organisational success. Employers like to dignify the set of work behaviours required by this development as "generic". They include not only interpersonal "skills" but also so-called skills such as problem-solving, working in teams, leadership, communications, customer handling, work discipline and self-motivation.
That weasel word "generic" implies that such skills can be transferred from one workplace to another. More significant, it implies that they can be taught. But does this assumption make sense? It may be easy enough for a school or university to instil a general predisposition to solve problems and to provide general diagnostic tools that might make the solution more available, but many problems require quite specific knowledge to solve them.
There is, though, something more sinister about this attenuation of the term "skill". When we look closely at so-called generic skills, they are not what any reasonable person would regard as skills: they are personal traits that can readily be moulded into the characteristics required by an employer. They are the skills that ensure a subservient workforce that does what it is told and that will work for low pay.
Consider one of the most regularly cited soft skills: motivation. This is routinely spoken of as though it were a personal attribute that can be developed like muscle strength. So when employers say they want the education and training system to supply them with motivated employees, they neatly remove themselves from the equation. They blind themselves to the truth that motivation is not something that can be learnt like geography or home-brewing, but a condition created when organisations offer staff appropriate pay and working conditions.
One example of how this slippage of meaning creates its own problems come from a survey of employers' skills needs undertaken in London a few years ago. Many employers complained that prospective staff lacked the essential skill of "flexibility". But when the survey probed the precise aspects that were absent, these turned out to be a willingness to work long, unsocial hours and to readily accept hours of unpaid overtime.
What are the implications of these developments? To begin with, the changing meaning of skill makes it hard to define a job as "unskilled". If willingness to be flexible (work long and hard for poor pay for a bad employer) is now accorded the status of a skill, then plainly a lot of jobs in our low-wage economy require skilled labour.
Perhaps more alarming is the recognition that many of the attributes that now count heavily in employers' recruitment criteria could be judged to be proxies for a middle-class background. So-called skills such as accent, deportment and dress sense tend to reflect the candidate's socioeconomic origins and education. Some academics have even gone so far as to see in this development a reason for the alarming news that the UK is, by international standards, displaying ever lower levels of intergenerational social mobility. Our emphasis on soft skills has afforded the middle classes an opportunity to buck the meritocratic system in which "hard" credentials determined one's progress up the social and economic ladders.
A discussion of skills that goes beyond a reflex endorsement of the latest demand from employers for more job-ready youngsters is sorely needed. Cries from policymakers for more skills must be greeted with questions about what type of skills, for which people and to what effect?
Ewart Keep is Deputy Director of the Economic and Social Research Council Centre on Skills, Knowledge and Organisational Performance at Warwick University. This is an edited version of an article published in New Humanist Magazine (www.newhumanist.org.uk).