We may first call attention to the fact that there are a great many kinds of skills and some are so complex that the word skill is hardly adequate. Nor is the word learning especially helpful since it is a fuzzy description of involved articulated social processes. To disentangle some of the processes, it is profitable to distinguish between technical skills, tricks of the trade, and social skills.
Technical skills are the most obvious: The waitress learns to carry trays or to make out slips, the accountant learns the organizational routines for payment, students learn to do addition or multiplication, the safecracker learns how to make nitroglycerin. Some such skills admit of didactic instruction or machine-paced learning; many do not but must instead be picked up in childhood. This is especially true of occupations socially inherited such as farming, and, indeed, becoming a farmer really means taking on a parental role. Hence, it is hardly surprising that it is in agriculture that child labor is found most frequently all over the world in spite of governmental attempts in some places to stamp it out. The situation is somewhat similar in other rural occupations such as fishing, lumbering, and, to some extent, mining.
Then there is a small group of occupations that seems to be strictly hereditary and in which an assortment of very special skills are passed down from generation to generation as family secrets. Some examples are bell casters, circus performers, croupiers, and often chefs. Learning such technical skills is not the only problem; how do persons get access to situations in which these technical skills are taught? One cannot arrange somehow to be born into a circus performer's family. In medicine, the key skills are not taught to any great extent in medical school but in the internship, during which students experience their first work with live patients. Therefore the key problem is getting a good internship, and this is a major way that medicine restricts the entry of minority groups. Such also would be the case for learning crime; Letkemann entitled one of his chapters "The Prison as School".
Tricks of the trade are devices to save persons from their own mistakes. The most important tricks are those that save time, save energy, or prevent a person being hurt. All occupations have shortcuts and a part of the efficiency of an experienced worker is attributable to them. A new teacher, for example, marks each examination paper in its entirety; the old hand marks one question at a time. In some occupations one must learn to lift heavy weights without strain. In others one learns how to avoid cutting oneself or hitting one's thumb with a hammer.
Matthews has described the tricks of the trade in fighting fires. Rookie firefighters learn never to look up when scaling a ladder lest burning material fall on the face. They are told to put on their helmets before buttoning the fire-coat so that, should they fall off the truck, the head at least will be protected. Most ingenious is the trick of the "smoke-eaters," who can stay in a smoky room for long periods. They develop the knack of getting breaths of fresh air through the nozzle of the hose before the water is pumped through, and, by listening, to know when to remove the mouth from the nozzle before the water comes roaring out.
Professional criminals run the continued risk of being "hurt" (caught) so they use tricks of the trade in great profusion. For example, professional pickpockets station themselves in a public place directly under a sign that reads "Beware of Pickpockets." Most men with money, after reading the sign, will reach for their wallets and women will clutch their purses a little more tightly, hence signaling to the thief who it is with significant amounts of money and where the money is. In organizations perhaps the most obvious trick is learning to cheat and get away with it.
Social skills refer to learning to get along with other workers or with clients and customers. One learns what is considered a day's work, what it is safe to talk about, and what one must keep secret. One discovers to whom one can talk, whom one must avoid, and how to protect fellow workers from criticism. One reason farming is inherited is that success depends heavily on the acquisition of entrepreneurial skills such as how to buy and sell, how to drive a bargain and with whom, and on whose word one can depend. Factory workers check one another's work and share in emergencies. In restaurants, the key social skill is handling customers. Whyte has traced the problem of the "crying waitress" to her being in the middle of pressure from the customer on the one hand and the chef on the other. In crime, an important social skill revolves about the assessment of risk.
In many professions there is a heritage to acquire-folklore, persons of notoriety, famous events. There is also professional etiquette; knowledge of special titles, insignia, and dress; and marketplace information such as salaries and job information. Finally, there is the occupational argot. Examples include the familiar soldier's language, the language of the professional criminal, and the language of jazz and rock music players. The phenomenon seems to be universal for all well-established occupations and may be a sign that an occupation is well-established. The functions of such language seem to be only partly communicative; they seem also to have important social functions such as providing a means for identifying the experienced person and the person one can trust. It is clear that such skills can hardly be learned outside actual work situations.
A final question is: Who does the teaching? This seems obvious and one would assume the answer would be a teacher, a foreman, or a trainer, but the situation is by no means clear. Thus, Geer and others described the socialization process in a business machines school, a barber college, a school for nursing assistants, and a hospital for medical interns. In the case of the business machines school, the teacher was clearly indicated, although students learn some things from other students. By contrast, in the barber college the "teacher" turns out to be other students almost completely. In the cases of both the nursing assistants' school and medical interns' hospital, still another "teacher" turns out to be the patient.