Why there’s no such thing as a low-skilled job

By Caitlin Kelly

Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?
Many people in New York working low-wage jobs need a food bank to feed their family. Fair?

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.

malled cover LOW

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.)

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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.

The “low-skilled.”

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?

14 thoughts on “Why there’s no such thing as a low-skilled job

  1. I love this post and I am in absolute agreement with you. There is no college degree in patience. While I haven’t worked in retail in a while, I do believe that this essay says it all. Thanks for sharing!

  2. Actually, a lot of jobs I’ve had until recently were low-wage and low skill. Whether it be a once-a-week assistant librarian at my synagogue, ticket salesman at my high school, a student employee in the university financial aid office, or a resident manager at my apartment complex, none of them required any special skills except some basic knowledge of math, computers, or knowing where certain books go. Any other skills or knowledge that was needed on the job was pretty quickly taught and remembered.
    And some of these jobs were pretty low wage (the resident manager job only paid in a reduced rent and selling parking spaces on game day), but at those times I had a lot of help financially, from school and my folks, so I wasn’t in dire straits as some other people in these sorts of jobs might be.

    1. And yet…you, too discount (?!) that these were low-skill.

      Every single one of these jobs required a skill set that is emotional — patience, the willingness and ability to listen and respond to others’ needs…The American culture of $$$$$ and power fails to recognize that these ARE skills and I feel strongly they deserve compensation in kind. Not just math, etc.

      1. Yeah, they all require some acquired skill set that shouldn’t be blown off just because of what sort of work it is. And sometimes even prestigious jobs don’t require that much to do them. Maybe they should pay a bit less.

  3. I can relate to this post on so many levels. When I first moved to France, I went from a well-paid job as an agency copywriter to teaching English and then the dreaded executive assistant – serving coffee in meetings in exchange for a ticket to the corporate world. Today in Paris the garbage truck drivers are on strike because they work at ‘unskilled’ jobs and cannot live on the low wages they earn. Something is seriously wrong with our society if hardworking people have to rely on foodbanks to survive.

    1. Thanks for commenting!

      I think it speaks volumes about our need to stratify and reinforce our status over others. A city is in very deep trouble without garbage collection!

      Years ago, I dated a man who was the ship’s engineer for a sewage ship in NYC harbor. His job was essential! He made 50% of what I made, sitting in an office tower — and after I saw his workplace I was in awe of his many skills. NONE of which I have. 🙂

  4. it makes me sad that this is a reality. i read your book and learned even more about this awful phenomenon. i’ve worked these jobs as well and understand that you can be working harder than ever and still be in the hole.

  5. No such thing, you can have really good employees/service no matter what the job is. You can see them all over the place whether it’s healthcare, fast food, or anywhere in between.

  6. Pingback: [BLOG] Some Saturday links | A Bit More Detail

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