- I recently stopped using the phrase “unskilled” or “low-skilled” to describe low-paying work.
- Economists say low-paying jobs are a result of a high supply of non-college-educated workers relative to college grads – not because the work isn’t hard.
- Even if you have a college degree, it doesn’t immediately mean you are inherently “more skilled” than others. The phrase can also perpetuate gender and racial stereotypes.
- Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has brought attention to the use of this word in her tweets.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
I recently stopped calling jobs and workers as being “unskilled.”
You should too.
Since I began reporting on issues relating to the workplace earlier this year, I noticed that people tend to call low-paying work as “unskilled.” A cashier is a “low-skilled” job, for example, while a neurosurgeon is “high-skilled.”
A neurosurgeon went through years of training to become one of just thousands of people who can cut into a brain and not kill someone. That requires serious skill.
But who’s to say working as a cashier doesn’t require it’s own skill? It may ask for complex social skills you don’t learn in a classroom, but are still difficult to master. Describing these workers as having “low” or no skills seems unnecessarily judgmental to me.
Former waitress (and current congresswoman) Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been vocal on the topic. She’s even said working at a restaurant was harder than appearing on TV.
“Bartending + waitressing (especially in NYC) means you talk to 1000s of people over the years. Forces you to get great at reading people + hones a razor-sharp BS detector,” she tweeted. “Just goes to show that what some consider to be ‘unskilled labour’ can actually be anything but.”
I’ve waited tables and interviewed on live TV.
He’s right. Going on TV can be stressful, but restaurant shifts are much, much harder.
Most of these Fox News correspondents couldn’t last one real day in these hard working jobs they love to mock on television. https://t.co/36zN0Aeljo
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 25, 2019
I talked to some experts and came up with four reasons why we should all stop calling work (and workers) “unskilled.”
Economically speaking, work is paid less due to supply and demand, not because the work is easy.
The classification of “unskilled” versus “skilled” labour comes from the 1880s. The economy was expanding, leading to more construction jobs and an influx of immigrants to carry out those roles, according to Larry White, an economics professor at the NYU Stern School of Business.
As the economics dictate, jobs pay less when there is a greater supply of workers who can carry out the role relative to the demand. Since working at McDonald’s has few prerequisites, a greater number of Americans are available to get that job. Law, meanwhile, is an in-demand profession that requires extensive training.
Since there are more people who could wait tables than who could be doctors, waitressing jobs pay less, White said. Yet use of the term in economics is not meant to qualify low-paying or high-paying jobs as being hard or easy.
The “skills” language comes from historical classifications of work, which don’t exactly apply today.
“We probably shouldn’t be using those qualifying ‘high-, low-, un-‘ when we’re talking about skills that come along with a job,” White said.
Just because you have a college degree doesn’t immediately make you more competent than non-college graduates.
The largest barrier to entry to “high-skilled” work is having an increasingly expensive college degree.
Yet having a degree says little about how many “skills” you learned in college. In fact, a 2011 study found 45 per cent of students showed “no significant gains in learning” after two years in college. The Federal Reserve found only about 27% of people have jobs related to their college major.
And for low-paying jobs, the skills you need to do the work have greatly increased than years past. As the country outsourced or automated repetitive, assembly-line roles, jobs that require interpersonal skills were left behind. As a result, entry-level jobs and so called “low-skilled” jobs are more complex than years past, said Amanda Bergson-Shilcock, a senior fellow at the advocacy group National Skills Coalition.
A lifeguard, for instance, no longer simply sits by the pool, but must know many health and safety procedures. Childcare workers went from “glorified babysitters,” Bergson-Shilcock said, to roles that require a deeper understanding of the mental and emotional development of young children.
“The idea that there’s some uni-dimensional merit that can be determined by how selective the school you go to is not only a bad idea,” said Byron Auguste, former Deputy Director of the National Economic Council, “it’s an untrue idea and it’s a dangerous idea.”
“It misses all the variety and forms of talent people have,” said Auguste, who went on to found the nonprofit Opportunity at Work.
You can’t compare two completely different jobs.
Writer and hospitality worker Brittany Bronson has long said the word “unskilled” unfairly miscategorizes demanding service-sector jobs.
She says the biggest argument she hears for using “unskilled” is that “a neurosurgeon is obviously more skilled than a waitress.”
She agrees that the neurosurgeon (and other highly specialised work) requires technical training that a lot of people can’t do. But when you measure work as the value it brings to a company, “a neurosurgeon at McDonald’s is useless to McDonald’s,” she said.
“Certain skills are more valuable to certain companies than others,” Bronson said. “You can’t compare the two. It’s apples and oranges.”
You’re perpetuating gender and racial stereotypes.
Historically, good jobs don’t have anything to do with how much education you have or how much you make; they are about the people who perform the work, according to Ileen DeVault, a labour history professor and the academic director of The Worker Institute at Cornell.
Women, for instance, get paid 2% less than men working the same position, with the same qualifications. In 1994, teachers, a job that requires a bachelor’s degree, earned about the same as other college grads. Now, teaching earns 18% less than jobs with the same qualifications.
The fact that teachers are overwhelmingly women has everything to do with this pay discrepancy, according to DeVault. ER nurses, too, saw salary increases as more men entered the field.
Furthermore, the bulk of people who are paid poverty-level wages are black, Latino, or Asian. Black and Latino people make up less of the workforce than white people, yet account for the bulk of low-paying jobs like farm workers and home health aids. And it’s much harder for black and Latino people to get white-collar jobs due to unconscious bias.
Calling jobs worked primarily by people of colour as “low-skilled” can suggest workers are not talented, without taking into account the racial and societal barriers keeping black and brown people from high-paying jobs, Bergson-Shilcock said.
“Manual labour jobs, waitressing jobs, home healthcare aids, all of these are really necessary to our society,” she added. “But often calling a job unskilled often ends up to be a code word.”
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