How new technology affects educational choices: lessons from English apprenticeships after the arrival of steam power

by Alexandra de Pleijt (Utrecht University), Chris Minns and Patrick Wallis (London School of Economics)

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Many workers today worry whether robots will do away with their jobs. Most economists argue that the effect of automation is likely to depend on what workers do. Robots may replace some types of manual work, but new jobs will also be created to design, maintain and manage automated production.

A shift towards ‘new jobs’ would mean that different skills will be valued in the future, and many policy experts have argued that secondary and post-secondary education will have to change in response. But if young people and their parents anticipate how automation will affect their job prospects, the choices made among current educational opportunities could shift ahead of any changes in what is offered.

The effects of automation on educational choice will be seen in the future. But past experience can offer some ideas as to whether the arrival of new technology affects these choices, even before the technology is widespread.

This research examines how the arrival of a new production technology affected educational choices in late eighteenth century England. The period between 1760 and 1810 is at the beginning of the largest shift in history from hand- to machine-powered production, through the invention and spread of the steam engine that powered the British Industrial Revolution.

Our research combines detailed evidence on the location and timing of the adoption of steam engines with the records of over 300,000 English apprenticeships from the rolls of the Commissioner of Stamps.

The main finding is that the arrival of steam power changed the willingness of young people to pursue apprenticeships, which for centuries had been the main route to acquiring the skills required for the production of manufactured goods. Counties saw a fall of 40-50% in the share of population entering into textile apprenticeships once a steam engine was present.

Despite the possible association with machine design and maintenance, mechanical apprenticeships also saw a decline of just under 20% following the arrival of steam. Merchant and professional apprentices, who were trading the goods produced by craft or industry, were mostly unaffected.

These findings show that the workforce responded to the emergence of technology that would dramatically change the nature of production and work in the future, but that much of the response was local. Apprenticeships fell first in northern counties where industrial towns and cities with factory-based production had emerged earlier. A similar decline in how workers were trained was not seen in southern and eastern England in the early part of the Industrial Revolution.

 

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