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.