Front Page Titles (by Subject) CHAPTER 17: CONDITIONS FOR EFFICIENT LABOR - Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles
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CHAPTER 17: CONDITIONS FOR EFFICIENT LABOR - Frank A. Fetter, Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles 
Economics, vol. 1: Economic Principles, (New York: The Century Co., 1915).
Part of: Economics, 2 vols.
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CONDITIONS FOR EFFICIENT LABOR
§ 1. Subjective and objective factors of efficiency. § 2. Food and efficiency. § 3. Clothing and housing. § 4. Schooling. § 5. Political security and honest government. § 6. Effect of caste upon efficiency. § 7. American democracy and efficiency. § 8. Balance of advantage between work and leisure. § 9. Division of labor and exchange. § 10. Individual and territorial division. § 11. Advantages of specialization. § 12. Best adjustment of talents and occupations.
§ 1. Subjective and objective factors of efficiency. The efficiency of labor, in its broadest sense, is its ability to render services or produce things that minister to welfare. It is a resultant of many influences. In its broader sense, the phrase “efficiency of labor” implies any and every influence that makes for a larger and better supply of goods. In part it depends on the physical and mental powers of men, in part on things outside of the worker that either stimulate and strengthen him, or give him more favorable conditions in which to work. These are respectively the subjective and the objective aspects of efficiency. Many of the objective conditions count in the result only as they affect the men, benefiting their health and strength, stimulating their ambitions, promoting education, invention, thrift, etc. It is this class of forces, acting in and through men, of which we are now to speak. We leave aside for the time one of the largest objective aspects of the question, that of the material equipment with which the community as a whole is furnished, relative to the population. According as this equipment is more or less abundant, as labor is employed in a fertile or a barren field, with a sharp tool or a dull one, with a highly developed machine or a poor one, the product is more or less.1
We limit our attention here to the conditions of efficiency midway between the qualities and abilities of men (primarily subjective) and the natural equipment (primarily objective). Among a population of a given grade of intelligence and a given economic environment of natural resources, what causes will operate to make the laborers vary in their efficiency?
§ 2. Food and efficiency. Usually workmen that are getting good wages enjoy abundant food and creature comforts; poorly paid workers go scantily fed. The question arises: which is cause, which effect? Some maintain that all that is needed to make workmen more efficient is to feed them well. In some cases this is probably true. The Porto Ricans enlisted in the American regular army are reported to have increased at once in strength, weight, and vigor; the Filipino recruits, thanks to the American army rations, soon outgrew their uniforms. Some employers in Europe pay their workmen an extra sum on condition that it is spent for meat. But if wages increase, it is by no means certain that more or better food will be bought; or, if it is, that the workmen’s powers will be increased. There is a limit to the gain in efficiency by increasing food. There is some reason to believe that in America great numbers of our people, perhaps even many manual laborers, would be better off if they bought simpler and less costly food. The maximum of health and vigor may be attained with moderate outlay, and beyond that point richer food doubtless does more harm than good. Poor judgment in the selection of food is shown in many families, and there is little appreciation of its influence on health.
At one time an experiment in feeding pigs was tried on the Cornell farm. Four groups of six pigs each were kept in four different pens and fed four different rations. Tho alike in breed and age, the groups began at once to differ in disposition. One group squealed more; another scratched more; another waxed fat faster. Every week they were weighed, and finally were butchered, hung up, and photographed. At that same time, at the Elmira Reformatory some experiments were being tried on some criminals of the lower class. They were given daily baths, special physical exercises, and were fed on a specially bountiful diet. Scientific philanthropy stopped there, but photographs “before and after,” reproduced in the printed reports, show the great physical improvement that resulted, and a marked change occurred likewise in disposition and intelligence. Many laboratory experiments have been made of late to test the chemical nature and the physiological effects of foods. It is becoming more fully recognized that the quality and quantity of food, and the cooking of it, have a great influence on the economic quality of the worker.
§ 3. Clothing and housing. Variation in quality and amount of clothing, while of course varying with the climate, is on the whole of less practical effect upon efficiency than that of food. Loss of heat and energy, dulling the powers, stiffening the muscles, causing illness with many trains of evils, make ill-clad workmen inefficient. The cost of clothing enough for comfort is, however, comparatively small, the amount spent for ornament is comparatively high. A man spends about one third of each day in sleep and his physical and mental powers and efficiency in his hours of work depend in large measure on the conditions making for restful sleep, on the comfort, decency, light, ventilation, and sanitary surroundings in the home. Nearly another third of each worker’s life (about half his waking hours) is spent in his house or in its neighborhood, where the sights, sounds, and physical conditions of streets, alleys, and places of amusement are constantly helping to determine his fitness for industrial tasks. Even more important are these conditions of the house and surroundings, good air, water, playgrounds for growing children, to enable a population to continue and renew itself with healthy and efficient workers. Many of these conditions are free goods in the country, and the simplest cottage in an open field makes them possible. They become more difficult to secure as manufacturing and densely populated commercial districts grow. People come to live in unnatural conditions, and evils of slums and bad housing appear.
Another third of the worker’s life is spent in his work-place, whether it be in the dwelling or in the field, street, store, or factory. Astonishingly little thought has been given, even by men working for themselves, to the effect that the work-place may have on the worker’s efficiency. Many employers, however, have come to see that it does not pay to have bad factory conditions. Even if the ultimate effects in causing sickness and shortening the worker’s life be ignored, the bad immediate effect to the employer is a reduction in the efficiency of the worker. A slight change in the weather affects the working of even a gasoline engine. Is not a worker as sensitive to condition of physical comfort and health? Any piece of machinery requires to be installed, maintained, and adjusted just right or it will fall short of its full capacity and wear out more quickly. It is so with a man. The best factories are now being planned as carefully as is the machinery, with a view to having excellent conditions of light, heat, ventilation, cleanliness, and comfort of the employees. Doubtless much larger and fuller provision of this kind would be to the advantage of employers, as well as for the welfare of the workers and of society in general.
§ 4. Schooling. Education in schools is a most imperfect index of training for industrial tasks. A large part of the purpose even of the elementary schooling is to fit for citizenship and for the receipt of the large psychic income possible through reading and the understanding of life about one. But one without reading, writing, and other elementary school subjects is in these days unfitted to take part in all but the simplest tasks. The percentage of illiteracy in the United States, tho still considerable, is steadily declining.
The decline in illiteracy accompanies a regular increase in the average period spent by the youth in school, which has risen from 3.4 years in 1870, and 4 years in 1880, to 5.9 years in 1910. Still a very large number of children drop out of school very early as is indicated by these figures.
Many of those that remain get no farther than the fourth grade. An average result, as follows, is indicated by the statistics: of the children entering the first grade,
§ 5. Political security and honest government. If men are to labor in the present and for the future, they must enjoy the protection of a stable and strong government. As the framers of the Constitution expressed it, the function of government is to insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defense, and insure the blessings of liberty to the citizen. Directness and certainty of reward are more essential than mere size of reward in insuring action and effort. There must be a close relation between work and the fruits of work. Political insecurity weakens this relation and makes the reward dependent on the chance of escaping the highwayman and the foreign invader. For fear of this, many a nation has sacrificed some of the precious elements of liberty, and has submitted to a strong despot. This was the economic motive in the feudal system.
The prevalence of standards of honesty in private and public business is a condition for high industrial efficiency. Corruption in government has the same effect as political insecurity; in fact, it is but another form of it. We are accustomed to the thought that in an Asiatic despotism a worker beginning a task is uncertain whether he will reap the reward, as public officials may at any moment seize upon the fruits of his labor. But in our own country similar evils are not entirely lacking. Assessments often are unfair, and justice sometimes is bought. Men in high executive positions are able to make or mar the fortunes of their followers. Sometimes a legislator from a country town goes to the state capital poor and returns rich. The spoils system in politics is costly to the community, not merely because a few men successful in gaining office get paid several times as much as they are worth; it is an economic evil because it tempts many other men to give up steady work. Such examples break down the motives leading to careful preparation for regular industry. They breed the notion that wealth is more dependent on chance or jobbery than on efficient service. Dishonesty in private business means the use of energy not to produce wealth, not to add to the sum for all to enjoy, but to get it from some one else. Public corruption and commercial dishonesty alike entail upon the industrious both immediate loss and the far greater cost of weakened character, relaxed energy, and decreased efficiency of labor.
§ 6. Effect of caste upon efficiency. It may be said generally that customs and social ideals that raise or depress hope and ambition, affect efficiency. The institution called caste, which fixes the place of the worker and makes it impossible to rise out of the social position in which he is born, and disgraceful to do any work reserved to other castes, is depressing to energy. It exists in some form throughout the world, and where it is not called by that name, the same caste spirit is at work. The European peasants in the Middle Ages lived under the shadow of it. Where slavery exists the master class at times feels its hardships. “It is not so hard to live,” says the hungry Creole daughter in “The Grandissimes,” “but it is hard to be ladies. . . . We are compelled not to make a living. Look at me: I can cook, but I must not cook; I am skilful with the needle, but I must not take in sewing; I could keep accounts; I could nurse the sick; but I must not.” Nowhere in the world is there less caste than in America, but it is here. The negro’s low measure of industrial efficiency is partly the cause of so-called race feeling against him, but in the case of the more capable individuals it may be partly the effect of that feeling. To close to a capable worker all but the menial occupations is to weaken his motives for effort.
§ 7. American democracy and efficiency. Democracy has made for the efficiency of American industry much as have the great natural resources. America’s rapid advance in industrial lines has been favored by her ideas and institutions. The many rewards open to personal merit and the chance for every worker to improve his position, have helped to stimulate here to greater energy and to a faster working pace in most grades of labor than is found elsewhere in the world. There is danger that under the new conditions of population and industry something of the spirit of enterprise will be lost. To Western eyes already the young men in the older East seem to be trammeled by social conventions. In an older community there is less of hopeful ambition; one’s position depends more on what his fathers achieved; in the new community, more on what he does himself. If it is true, as wise students declare, that the frontier has been the nursery of our democratic ideas, we may well ask what effect the closing of the frontier will have on our national sentiment and on our material prosperity.
§ 8. Balance of advantage between work and leisure. Custom and national temperament affect the efficiency of labor by determining the normal period of labor-time. After the bare necessities of life are provided for, the worker has a wide or narrow margin of productive energy to use as he pleases. If four hours’ work a day would enable him to live, will he work longer or will he stop? The answer is determined by the balance between the value of leisure and the value of labor’s product. Is the lure of the fruits of additional hours of labor stronger than the desire for idleness? Does the pain of toil repel more than its fruits attract? Individual differences are plainly expressed when each man labors on his own field. The prudent man, in the old maxims, makes hay while the sun shines and plows deep while sluggards sleep. National and religious holidays in some countries make an enormous loss of time from industry a patriotic and pious duty. The use made of spare time differs according to climate, race, and temperament. In the tropics the margin is converted usually into loafing, in the temperate zones largely into objective forms of enjoyment. In the modern large organization of industry, working hours are much the same for all workers in the establishment. Individual preferences are still expressed, however, in irregularity of employment. In the South some manufacturers have found that on an average the negroes will work in a factory not more than five or six hours a day, perhaps working ten hours for four days and staying away two days a week. Such limited working hours mark a primitive standard of desires and primitive industrial qualities, altho a shortening of the long working day of ten or twelve hours, as incomes increase above bare subsistence, is in accord with a rational valuation of leisure. A moderate change in that direction can not but increase rather than diminish the efficiency of labor.
§ 9. Division of labor and exchange. The term “division of labor” is simple, but the thought is a complex one. Its full discussion would cover the whole field of political economy, but only its most essential aspects can here be touched upon. Division of labor is a term expressing that complex arrangement of industrial society whereby individual workers are enabled to apply themselves to the production of certain kinds of goods, securing others by trade. Division of labor and exchange are counterparts and mutually determine each other. On Robinson Crusoe’s island there could be no division of labor. Division of labor depends on the extent of the market, and in turn widens its limits. The number of articles that any one would care to produce at one time and place depends on the opportunity to exchange them. Those two aspects of industry thus are inseparable in thought and practice. The worker finds division of labor existing as a social institution and, according as he adapts himself to it wisely or foolishly, it increases more or less his efficiency. Division of labor necessitates variety of regular occupations, and the practice of special trades and professions. Specialization is the individual aspect of division of labor. It is doing one comparatively limited kind of task with the purpose of becoming more expert in it. The term division of labor, however, suggests more broadly the situation where two or more persons are specializing and are trading directly or indirectly with each other.
§ 10. Individual and territorial division. Division of labor may be between individuals in the same community or between those in different territories and nations. In division of labor between occupations, each worker applies himself to the production of some product or group of products and secures other goods by trade. When a number of workers in a locality engage in the fabrication of one kind of product to trade with persons in another community, it is territorial division of labor. This trade may be between persons living in different localities in the same country (called localization of industry) or between the citizens of two nations, in foreign trade. Division of labor usually begins in some natural differences, of soil, climate, mineral and forest resources, or water-power (see Chapter 6, section 11, on origin of markets). Whatever its origin it leads to individual specialization which becomes fixed by habit and training. To the original natural advantage are thus added the advantages of a larger and regular labor-supply, of nearness to related and tributary industries, and of the greater chance to use waste products, and frequently the economics of large-scale production (see below, Chapter 31). The natural advantages in another district must be large to enable it to start successfully against these acquired economies, and territorial division of labor thus tends to continue for long periods when once established.
§ 11. Advantages of specialization. There is a tradition that an ingenious lecturer in one of our universities was accustomed to give to his class eighty reasons why division of labor was of advantage. It is none too many, as every reason for the modern, as contrasted with the primitive, organization of industry should be included. Apart from natural differences in localities, most of these relate to specialization. Specialization increases efficiency by: (a) saving time; (b) saving tools and materials; (c) improving quality; (d) increasing skill; (e) increasing knowledge; (f) stimulating invention; (g) encouraging enterprise; (h) economizing talent. The headings just given may serve to suggest the leading phases of this subject.
(a) Specialization saves time by making unnecessary the physical change of place for the worker, the frequent shifting of tools, and the mental readjustment required for the undertaking of a new task.
(b) Specialization saves tools, for either each kind of work must be most ineffectively done, or there must be provided for each worker a complete set of tools which thus will be used rarely and will rust out rather than wear out. If a few tools are thoroly used, they yield a larger income and require less care and repairs in proportion to their uses. In fact, this fuller economic use of machinery and plant where a large product is turned out at one place, is a prime factor in the advantages of large production (a subject to be treated elsewhere, Chapter 31, much more fully than is here possible).
(c) By specialization is made possible a quality of goods never to be secured by the less skilled efforts of the Jack-of-all-trades.
(d) Specialization develops skill, as repetition of the same task trains the muscles, forms a mental habit, and gives swiftness and deftness of touch.
(e) The specialist is able to give much longer time to education and training for his lifework, and he continues to grow in knowledge of his materials and of the best processes, and he gains a power of delicate observation and facility in meeting new difficulties that are impossible when attention is divided among a number of tasks.
(f) By dividing and simplifying processes, specialization stimulates invention. The most complex machines have been developed gradually by combinations and adaptations of simple tools, and the more a process is subdivided, the greater is the chance of hitting upon a device to repeat mechanically the few simple movements.
(g) Specialization increases the motives of emulation and enterprise, by making it possible for each man to see better what is needed and to make a more exact comparison of results.
(h) It economizes talent by giving to each the highest task of which he is capable, while fitting the less efficient workers into the minor places made possible by subdivision. In an American wagon-factory, a one-armed man operating a machine was able to turn out as large a product and earn as high wages as any other employee. The same advantages of specialization are found with modifying conditions in educational and professional lines. The marvelous progress of science in recent years has been made possible by each student and investigator doing a few things and doing them well.
§ 12. Best adjustment of talents and occupations. Most young people give slight reflection to the choice of an occupation. The world is filled with industrial misfits, “round men in square holes,” good carpenters spoiled to make poor doctors. The individual worker, to attain his highest economic efficiency, must select from the occupations made possible by division of labor the one for which his talents are best fitted. It so often happens that the natural aptitude of the youth is the thing last or, in any event, least considered. Unreasoning imitation, family traditions, parental wishes, class pride, social prejudice, childish whim, are often decisive of the life career. Some occupations have so few chances of advancement that they are called the “blind alley trades,” yet to start in them is so easy that they attract the unthinking youth, especially those with impoverished parents. Happily in some cases, before too late, the man “finds himself,” but too often the poverty of the family and the obstacles to education preclude the exercise of intelligent choice.
Since the beginning of the century some serious efforts have been made to meet this difficulty by what is called vocational guidance. In some of the German schools in recent years the children’s aptitudes have been carefully studied, and definite advice has been given. Bureaus of vocational guidance are maintained now in some American cities. With more careful studies of the strength, health, qualities of sight, hearing, touch, natural aptitudes and tastes, one of the greatest of social and economic services will be in this way performed.
It is of importance to society as well as to the individual that talent should be discovered in time, that tasks should be fitted to aptitudes, that each member of society should attain to his highest efficiency. The approach to this ideal—made possible by popular education, the decline of caste, the spread of genuine democracy, the progress of social justice—will increase not only the workers’ efficiency, but society’s abiding welfare.
[1 ]Some part of this subject has been already touched in discussing wealth and its uses, and the other parts will be more fully treated in Part VI with Population, diminishing returns, and machinery.
[* ]The diagram represents 4,367,000 children in the first grade. A very large number (more than two out of three) stay there more than a year, repeating the work. A few never get beyond this point, but all excepting about a tenth attain the fourth grade, tho some take seven or eight years to do it. Then each year several hundred thousands drop out. More than one-half of those in the eighth grade do not enter a high school (or its equivalent).