No, We Do Not Value “Low-Skilled” Labor

How It Works

Oh, but if this isn’t such succulent headline click-bait for someone like myself. I almost feel guilty for sharing it—it’s so easy. The author is a university instructor and restaurant server who, as a result, is uniquely suited to see both sides of a divide on what types of work we value.

So here’s Brittany Bronson on the nature of low-skilled labor and what that framing does to large swathes of human beings in the world’s richest country:

“The terms “unskilled” and “low-skilled labor” contradict the care and precision with which my co-workers, who have a variety of educational backgrounds and language fluencies, execute their tasks.

[…]

Instead, the routine, repetitive nature of these jobs is perceived to define workers’ limitations, rather than their capabilities. And although most low-skill work requires a constant interaction with people, because of its low-paying status it is deemed a dead end, rather than a testament to an individual’s ability to acquire, adapt and specialize.

The labels “low-skilled” or “unskilled” workers — the largest demographic being adult women and minorities — often inaccurately describe an individual’s abilities, but play a powerful role in determining their opportunity. The consequences are not only severe, but incredibly disempowering: poverty-level wages, erratic schedules, the absence of retirement planning, health benefits, paid sick or family leave and the constant threat of being replaced.”

Allow me this one knee-jerk but entirely correct reaction to the headline, “Do we value low-skilled work?,” as an emphatic “Hell no.

I don’t even have to go into the comparative specifics, nor recount the last time I was put in my place by someone on the other side of the counter because I wear a name tag and follow a retail script to maximize sales. We don’t value low-end service work enough for people to survive off it, which in my book is as good as not valuing it at all. The answer is no and we all understand, if not always accept, the way this game is played.

That last part is important. It’s satirically fun to imagine mustachioed men and well-coifed women enjoying white tablecloth dinners, who “eat for you,” as the only malefactors here. It’s far more uncomfortable to assign collusion to those who don’t even think about it most of the time. Yet perpetuating socioeconomic myths is as easy as suddenly becoming fervent believers in the marginal product of labor theory when your fries come out cold in the drive-thru.

It often takes finding oneself on the receiving end of that belief to rethink things. There are situations where I’ve worked with four-year college folks that have either never worked in the low-end service sector or experienced it differently as a teenage job for spending money. I don’t assign this to the author at all, as she seems to avoid it, but it’s not uncommon to hear something along the lines of “wow, this work really is hard.” And as much you might get the good intentions of the sentiment, it’s also an unavoidable sign of where a person’s used to standing in the hierarchy of things. They’re used to be waited upon—not taking condescending flak leaving an item off a sandwich or being too slow to get a refill. Realizing that these types of jobs can actually be quite difficult, and doing it well requires a level of skill you never bothered to imagine, is one of those small moments of clarity that peels back the curtain on how we relate to others in a service-dominated economy.

But it also alludes to the near-universal complicity in accepting an income distribution that leaves an entire category of labor, for which we utterly take for granted, with next to nothing in the bank and little respect to boot. It’s towards the end her column that Bennett gets to this, that while “[a]ll work can be executed with skill […],” it’s the rejection of this idea for the bottom end of the hourglass economy that also makes it pretty damn convenient to justify poverty-level wages.

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