Do we value low-skilled work?

If you find yourself in Seattle, skip the regular tourist stops (Pike’s Place, the Space Needle, etc.) and make your way to the Tap House downtown.

There you’ll find over 160 global beers on tap and three bartenders with an impressive understanding of their product. All three bartenders know every beer on tap, each libations’ origin story, shipping date, each beer’s brewing process, and the market price for each draft. Bartenders memorize all open tabs, are responsible for 10–12 during non-busy hours, and balance pints between their fingers like Russian gymnasts on a beam.

All three are classified as low-skilled workers.

During my last visit at the Tap House, I attended a global investor retreat happy hour focusing on the future demand for certain workers. Some of the wealthiest, well educated, and most ‘skilled’ individuals gathered to discuss shifts in today’s economy.

The main themes coalesced around a transition to a higher skilled workforce where “unnessary” low skilled workers positions would be automated. Many argued those not working as hard would get left behind and all agreed those were low skilled workers. Everyone concluded that jobs that contained repetitive tasks with little training or market-diagnosed high skill would be eliminated and there would soon be a world with little or no perceived low-skilled workers.

This narrative around those at the bottom of the economic food chain isn’t new.

Whether it’s their intelligence or complexity of their craft, the labor of low-skilled workers has been maligned and misconstrued.

Headlines tell us “College Graduates are Wasting their Degrees in Low Skilled Jobs” and “Skilled Workers Are in Short Supply.” Even liberal lovebug, UC Berkeley Professor Robert Reich argued, “we need people to stop wasting their time with low skilled jobs and garner real skills.”

The condescension may stem from how the term low-skill is defined. The Financial Times describes the category as,” A worker who does work that does not involve any special skill or training.”

The Social Security Administration categorizes low-skilled work as, “Low-skilled work is work which needs little or no judgment to do simple duties that can be learned on the job in a short period of time. The job may or may not require considerable strength.”

Even the well-keeled Websters is quite unkind to this group with their definition, “1:not skilled in a branch of work :lacking technical training an unskilled worker 2:not requiring skill unskilled jobs 3:marked by lack of skill produced unskilled poems.”

These definitions need updating because today’s core of low-skilled workers are not cognitively nascent. CEDEFOP, European Center for the Development of Vocational Training, discovered that the majority of those dubbed to be at the lower rung of the skills ladder already had or acquired informal skills through their jobs which equals skilled qualifications but due to external circumstances, they have had to take up a low-skilled position to earn a living or balance work/life.

Back in the states, the reality is no different. Mega companies like Starbucks, McDonalds, and Walmart aggressively hire veterans not simply because of consumer optics but because former armed force members possess a high IQ and EQ that make them prepared for any profession.

Today’s fast food industry, an employer of many at the lower rungs of the economic ladder, possesses a workforce where 70% are over the age of 25 and have (or are near) a post-secondary education.

And by no means are these jobs lacking mental rigor. The problem with the term unskilled worker is its direct contradiction to the actuality that so many of these perceived mindless tasks carry a heavy mental and physical burden unencapsulated by its definition.

In his thoughtful book, The Mind at Work, Mike Rose takes us into the care, precision, and intelligence practiced by everyday workers. In his research, he evaluates the works of waiters/waitresses, bartenders, cooks, hotel workers and others categorized as low-skilled workers. Mr. Rose highlights that rarely discussed responsibility so many of these individuals have: processing large bits of information, spontaneous thinking, non-stop deadlines, dealing with varying temperaments, and accepting a physical toll that affects your body in perpetuity (Mr. Rose’s mother had early alzheimer’s and ankle problems her doctors attribute to her waitress days).

Mr. Rose’s work further discovered that competent waiter and waitress have techniques that enable them to override the normal limits on human “short-term” or “working” memory. Moreover, bus drivers, baristas, and bartenders engage in an unhealthy and unproductive level of multi-tasking. Other service workers, like janitors and movers, endure physical ailments that affect them long after they leave their respective profession.

The economic consequences for inaccurately describing an individual’s ability are severe. In an open-market, mischaracterizing the complexity and arduousness of a professional’s work undermines their ability to get their fair share of the financial pie.

It should be no surprise that as a result many unskilled workers receive poverty-level wages, sporadic work schedules, shabby retirement options, minimal health benefits. And as an overall segment, have wages that haven’t kept up with inflation in the past twenty years.

This is undoubtedly a dereliction of our societal duty.

In the western world, we’re raised to believe that money, markets, and merit have a handshake agreement that signals one’s economic worth. That the value of work is defined by the dynamics of the duties and the intellectual investment you pour into your work.

All work, at all levels, is executed with a level of skill, brainpower, and creativity. Continuing to deny that fact only justifies the horrific conditions and unfair compensation for millions of workers. Attempting to create conditions that allows those workers to be properly compensated or have a genuine attempt at upward mobility must be given the detailed, precise, and nuanced attention this issue deserves.

I know three bartenders who might be able to help.

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