Low-Skill Workers Aren’t a Problem to Be Fixed

A chef cooking

Recently, I was mesmerized by a prep cook. At a strip-mall Korean restaurant, I caught a glimpse of the kitchen and stood dumbfounded for a few minutes, watching a guy slicing garnishes, expending half the energy I would if I were doing the same at home and at twice the speed. The economy of his cooking was magnetic. He moved so little, but did so much.

Being a prep cook is hard, low-wage, and essential work, as the past year has so horribly proved. It is also a “low-skill” job held by “low-skill workers,” at least in the eyes of many policy makers and business leaders, who argue that the American workforce has a “skills gap” or “skills mismatch” problem that has been exacerbated by the pandemic. Millions need to “upskill” to compete in the 21st century, or so say The New York Times and the Boston Consulting Group, among others.

Those are ubiquitous arguments in elite policy conversations. They are also deeply problematic. The issue is in part semantic: The term low-skill as we use it is often derogatory, a socially sanctioned slur Davos types casually lob at millions of American workers, disproportionately Black and Latino, immigrant, and low-income workers. Describing American workers as low-skill also vaults over the discrimination that creates these “low-skill” jobs and pushes certain workers to them. And it positions American workers as being the problem, rather than American labor standards, racism and sexism, and social and educational infrastructure. It is a cancerous little phrase, low-skill. As the pandemic ends and the economy reopens, we need to leave it behind.

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The general policy prescription, however, is that we need to leave “low-skill workers” behind. Forget about being essential! These are the millions of Americans without the credentials and chops to succeed in tomorrow’s economy, any number of white papers, panels, and conference colloquiums will tell you. Indeed, the Obama White House, as part of its Upskill Initiative, posited that roughly 20 percent of American workers need to address their on-the-job “deficiencies” to “realize their full potential,” fretting that 36 million people “cannot compare and contrast information or integrate multiple pieces of information,” per one test.

This description, like so many descriptions of “low-skill workers,” is abjectly offensive, both patronizing and demeaning. Imagine going up to a person who’s stocking shelves in a grocery store and telling him that he is low-skill and holding the economy back. Imagine seeing a group of nannies and blasting “Learn to code!” at them as life advice. The low-skill label flattens workers to a single attribute, ignoring the capacities they have and devaluing the work they do. It pathologizes them, portraying low-skill workers as a problem to be fixed, My Fair Lady–style.

Academics do use the term low-skill with precision, to measure changes in employment and pay and to compare different countries’ workforces. But in the broader political arena, this sneering language is often so imprecise as to be useless. The terms low-skill worker and low-skill job are conflated, for one, though those are very different charges. For individual workers, the problem, if any, is often not that they lack skills in general, but that they lack specific capacities or qualifications. A worker who came to the United States later in life might not be able to read or write in English, for instance. Is that worker really low-skill, or just in need of language classes? Many foreign-born workers cannot use employment certificates gained abroad in the United States. Is a foreign-born architect who ends up driving a taxi low-skill? Many “low-skilled” workers are young. Are those actually low-skilled workers, or just inexperienced ones?

When business leaders and policy types talk about “low-skill jobs” or “low-skill professions,” things get even more imprecise. Frequently, they are lumping together entry-level jobs, jobs that do not require much education or a formal credential, jobs that do not require experienced workers, jobs without much opportunity for advancement, menial jobs, and—most of all—low-wage jobs. But those are all very different things, with wildly different policy implications. It is not a good thing for a country to have too few entry-level jobs, for instance. The country needs them, or else what are kids leaving high school supposed to do?

The most gutting problem with these terms is that many “low-skill jobs” held by “low-skill workers” are anything but. Many of these are difficult, physically and emotionally taxing jobs that, in fact, require employees to develop extraordinary skills, if not ones you learn at medical school or MIT. A great deal of skill is necessary to wash a lunch rush’s worth of dishes. A great deal of skill is required to change the clothes of an immobilized senior who might not want to have her clothes changed, or to wrangle a class of toddlers, or to clean up an overgrown yard at breakneck pace, or to handle five tables of drunk guys who want their wings yesterday. The kind of patience and equanimity it takes to be a good care worker? Not a skill, apparently. The kind of fortitude it takes to be a fruit picker? Not a skill either.

Who are we if our policy language demeans those skills and those workers? We are ourselves, I suppose, which is to say that the low-skill label is a social construct that at least in part reflects the structural racism and sexism endemic in our economy. We understand jobs to be low-skill because of the kinds of people who hold those jobs; we see certain skills as valuable because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; we ignore other skills because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; and we shunt workers into “low-skill” jobs due to circumstances out of their control.

The point is not that all jobs require the same skills or the same capacities. The point is not to dissuade workers from spending more time in school or training. The point is not that all jobs are equally difficult. The point is that we scarcely stop to recognize how our biases inform our understanding of what skilled work is and whose work matters. As the Harvard economist Claudia Goldin has demonstrated, women joining a given profession tends to “reduce the prestige” in that profession; she calls this the “pollution theory of discrimination.” Other research shows that pay starts dropping when women show up. Similarly, Black workers being overrepresented in a given profession is associated with depressed wages. The same dynamics are surely at play in how we distinguish between low-skill, low-pay and high-skill, high-pay work. The terms are, in part, euphemistic, a proxy for social capital and compensation, a way of justifying 20-something McKinsey consultants making 10 times what veteran groundskeepers do.

At issue here, again, is not just rhetoric. The pandemic has helped us recategorize many “low-skill” jobs as “essential” jobs—jobs integral to the functioning of the economy, but whose importance so often does not translate into fair pay and good benefits. But I fear we are losing that paradigm shift as the world normalizes again. Cashiers and receptionists and delivery drivers and parents’ helpers will once again be seen as economic deadweight, not vital economic utilities.

White House after White House, Republican or Democratic, has pushed retraining and upskilling initiatives that put the onus on workers to improve themselves in order to improve their job-market prospects and the American economy in general. In so doing, they make individual what is clearly a governmental and societal problem. The supposed lack of “skills” among American workers reflects the country’s intergenerational poverty crisis, the brutal cost of higher education, the inaccessibility of quality and affordable child and health care, and the barriers it puts up for immigrant workers, as much as it does anything else.

How are you supposed to upskill yourself if you’re earning $11 an hour and have no benefits? If you dropped out of your associate’s program because you cannot afford not to work? What kind of technical training are you supposed to do if you’re taking care of young children? What is the point of upskilling yourself if you get paid off the books because of your immigration status? Is learning to code really going to help you overcome the felony charge on your record?

Would workers upskilling themselves even do anything? Running the economy hot and pushing the unemployment rate toward scratch tends to solve the problem of worker-workplace mismatch. Higher labor costs also push employers to invest in making jobs better and training their own workforces. Workers, moreover, tend to be pretty good at equipping themselves with in-demand skills when they have the resources to invest in themselves and when companies are hiring. The problem lies not with American workers, but with American jobs and American policy infrastructure. Too many jobs pay too little. They’re too dangerous. They offer too few benefits. They offer no union representation. They are inaccessible to millions of Americans who are pushed out of the labor market by illness, disability, poverty, the arrival of young children, or discrimination.

All jobs could be good jobs. But only policy makers and business leaders have the skills to make that happen, not workers.