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The New York Times: Do We Value Low-Skilled Work?

The New York Times: Do We Value Low-Skilled Work?

0 Comment(s) | Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

by Brittany Bronson 

Las Vegas — IN the casino restaurant where I work, the rush arrives at 10 p.m. The nearby show releases, sending 30 guests into my section all at once. For the next three hours, my body is in constant motion, quickly navigating tables, balancing pint glasses between my fingers, managing a growing mental checklist without ever expressing panic.

In a fast-paced restaurant, these are key skills. But in our economic rhetoric, they are categorized as “low skills.”

Taking orders does not demand a college-level education. Carrying trays of cocktails requires physical endurance, but no extensive, complex knowledge. 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.

But on some nights, when my multitasking, memory and body are in sync, when I find myself moving calmly around a room full of slightly buzzed and cheerful people, I feel confident that not every person can do the job as well as I can.

The terms “unskilled” and “low-skilled labor” contradict the care and precision with which my co-workers, who have a variety of educational backgrounds and language fluencies, execute their tasks. A newly hired server assistant can learn to, say, “Take these plates from here to there,” but a skilled server assistant can clear a table in one trip versus two, simply with more careful placement of dishes along his forearm or between his knuckles.

In the restaurant business, we call this a “nice carry.”

The body absorbs information the same way the mind does, with observation and study. 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.

The labels “low-skilled” or “unskilled” workers — the largest demographic being adult women and minorities — often inaccurately describe an individual’s abilities, but play a powerful role in determining their opportunity. The consequences are not only severe, but incredibly disempowering: poverty-level wages, erratic schedules, the absence of retirement planning, health benefits, paid sick or family leave and the constant threat of being replaced.

Instead of improved job quality, the rewards for task-oriented workers are pats on the back and the constant encouragement to aspire for something better.

Read the full article from The New York Times.

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