By Caitlin Kelly
Great op-ed recently in The New York Times:
Most people walking through casino employee hallways — janitors, housekeepers, retail workers — are categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs.
Headlines tell us that “College Graduates Are Wasting Their Degrees in Low-Skilled Jobs,” that “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” We’re raised, in the culture of American capitalism, to believe certain things, without question, namely that the value of work is defined by the complexity of the task and not the execution of it, that certain types of work are not worthy of devoting a lifetime to…
Like an athlete, a worker completing the same task for the thousandth time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But in the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritizing of tasks or how a more meticulous approach can mean the difference between a chaotic shift and a seamless one.
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.
This is a subject I feel passionate about, selfishly, because I lived this experience when I moved, after losing my well-paid professional reporting job at the New York Daily News, then the nation’s sixth-largest daily, into a part-time $11/hour retail sales associate position.
The recession hit journalism hard and early; by 2008, 24,000 of us had lost our jobs and many fled — into other industries, to teaching. Lucky ones retired early and many of us, like me, went freelance; huge drop in income but complete control of my workload and schedule.
I hadn’t earned so little since I was a teenager, a lifeguard in high school in Toronto. But it was the stunning lack of respect I felt behind the counter, wearing my plastic name badge, that stung more.
Working retail was like entering a whole other world, as I wrote in this New York Times essay:
Sometimes I feel like Alice slipping through the looking glass, toggling between worlds. In one world, I interview C.E.O.’s, write articles for national publications and promote my nonfiction book. In the other, I clock in, sweep floors, endlessly fold sweaters and sort rows of jackets into size order. Toggling between the working class and the chattering class has taught me a lot about both: what we expect of ourselves, how others perceive us, ideas about our next professional step and how we’ll make it.
The contrasts between my former full-time job and my current part-time one have been striking. I slip from a life of shared intellectual references and friends with Ivy graduate degrees into a land of workers who are often invisible and deemed low-status.
In journalism, my workplaces often felt like rooms filled with balloons, enormous and fragile egos rubbing and squeaking up against one another until, inevitably, several burst with a bang
In retail, divas are fired or soon quit. In journalism, I’ve had managers who routinely shrieked abuse. In retail, I’m managed by a man who served in the United States Air Force in Mogadishu and who wears his authority comfortably and rarely raises his voice.
What became obvious to me within a few weeks of working retail was how difficult and physically grueling it is. (Like food service in any capacity as well.)
But that’s not a big surprise, right?
What was striking to me was how crucial people skills — aka EQ — were to selling successfully and getting along with a team of 14 co-workers, a very mixed bag.
Hardly a low-skill job!
Nor is food service, waitressing or bar-tending. Any job that’s deemed “customer-facing” — and which adds the exhausting component of bending, stretching, carrying, reaching and standing for hours plus staying calm and pleasant (aka emotional labor) is not low-skill.
My retail job pushed me to my outer limits, physically and emotionally, while being intellectually deadening. Not a pretty combination.
But I saw how many unrewarded skills it took:
There’s no college degree in patience
There’s no MBA in compassion
There’s no Phd in common sense
There’s no MA in stamina
I saw much less common sense and EQ among some of the college students I taught, teenagers paying $60,000 for a year of formal education at a fancy private school, than among the young people I worked retail with — almost all of whom had a college degree or were working toward one.
Demeaning and financially undervaluing these skills — the same ones that keep the U.S. economy humming as much as any Wall Street billionaire — completely misses the essential contributions that millions of low-paid, hard-working people make every day.
Have you worked a low-wage, “low skill” job?
How did it — or does it — affect you?