labor Low Wage, Not Low Skill: Why Devaluing Our Workers Matters
During a recent hotel stay, I had a conversation about how staff divides gratuities with the gentleman who brought my room service. It evolved into a master class—generously given by him—on how to manage hours and earnings in the hospitality industry. He told me the advice he gives less experienced staff on how to time joining a new hotel so they can get the tenure needed to control their schedules. I could see he didn’t just have a Plan B, but a Plan C, D and E for when his children get sick, or he’s needed on an extra shift. Every day, week and month, he manages a complex, ever-shifting matrix that would impress any director of logistics.
There are millions of people like this room service attendant—sharp, talented individuals, working what we often call “low skill” jobs. You know them: the server at your neighborhood grill, the barista working during your morning coffee run or the home health worker who cares for your parent. It might even be you. Every day, these workers pour their intelligence and ingenuity, craft and creativity, and sometimes mind-boggling resourcefulness into jobs where these attributes are sometimes appreciated, but rarely rewarded.
What are the jobs that we blithely assume anyone can do? Restaurant servers juggle five or six tables at a time, preempting customers’ needs and keeping a high-stakes, continuously recalibrating to-do list in their heads. Caregivers administer drugs and nurse our loved ones through what can be the most difficult times of their lives. Migrant workers acquire, deploy and pass on a deep understanding of the crop patterns of various fruits, vegetables and trees in a range of soil conditions.
Such jobs require optimizing time tradeoffs, quality control, emotional intelligence and project management. They are not low skill, but they are low wage.
Why does this matter? When we stereotype or lazily assume low-wage workers to be “low skill,” it reinforces an often unspoken and pernicious view that they lack intelligence and ambition, maybe even the potential to master “higher-order” skilled work. In an economy that is supposed to operate as a meritocracy—but rarely does—too often, we see low wages and assume both the work and workers are low-value. This bias makes us overlook people for better-paying positions in which they might have excelled, hindering their social mobility. According to recent research by Jesse Rothstein of UC Berkeley, 45% of the factors determining how likely an American is to earn more than their parents are structural, like inherited wealth and where you live. One third of the likelihood of upward mobility is access to job opportunities—holding education constant—based on differential networks, discrimination and access. Each of those factors outweighs the impact of a person’s “skills” predicted by their education—22% of the total.
Discussions around the future of work often focus on a “skills gap.” As industries change, the McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that 44% or more of the tasks in jobs held by workers with less than a bachelor’s degree are automatable. It is certainly true that millions of people in low-wage jobs will need new skills for future work. Middle- and high-wage jobs will be affected too, but there is cynicism that low-wage workers are intrinsically unable to master new skills. This is mostly a cop-out. More than a skills gap, we have an opportunity gap, punctuated by a U.S. labor market in which adults who lack selective college degrees and professional experience are pre-emptively “screened out” based on their history. They are denied the chance to demonstrate and be hired for what they are ready to do and able to learn.
Imagine a receptionist who works at a small business. At her job, she handles tech support and has effectively become the entire IT department, but that’s not reflected in her resume or education. If she decides to reboot her career with an IT position, she will probably be screened out of potential jobs by algorithms searching for specific academic and employment history. Or consider the more than 30 million Americans who attended college but did not attain a degree. Think of returning veterans, caregivers, and uncredentialed working learners with non-traditional career paths. When employers focus only on resumes and degrees, these workers have no easy way to prove their abilities for better jobs and the “skills gap” becomes a self-fulfilling and self-defeating prophecy.
This flawed mindset hurts businesses as well as individuals. It leads them to organize low wage work in ways that ignore intelligence and even restrict the contribution of front-line workers. It undermines their incentives—or even permission—to act as problem solvers, damaging customer, financial and economic outcomes.
In an earlier career phase, when I helped businesses improve the effectiveness of their call centers and data centers, a common source of inefficiency was top-down metrics that overrode the judgment of front-line workers. For example, customer support staffers were often required to follow strict protocol and transfer callers with time-intensive issues to more expensive staff, even if they could solve the problem themselves. Not only was it incredibly frustrating for these employees to be barred from helping people, but it also alienated customers and cost the company more. Repeated throughout our economy, these infantilizing practices stymie too much of the productivity growth upon which rising wages depends.
We tend to think of our economic assets as the line items accountants can measure on a balance sheet: machines and software, land and factories, debt and equity. However, the talents, skills and know-how of workers—what is sometimes called “human capital”—is probably worth 4 to 5 times more than corporate assets. In other words, our economy’s most important resources to solve the problems of the future are the abilities of our people—which are “rented” but not “owned” by companies. That very much includes the almost 100 million working adults in the U.S. without bachelor’s degrees, some 60 million of whom currently earn less than $15 per hour. In misjudging the potential of these workers, we not only undermine our civic values of fairness and equality of opportunity; we also lose the additional work, wages, ideas and improvements they would otherwise have created, contributed and earned.
Wages do not equal the worth of a person. From developing software to nourishing tired travelers, all meaningful work contributes to society and deserves dignity.
Undervaluing low-wage work as “low-skill” is often untrue and unfair, but it also undermines our economic future. Work is solving problems. When we invest in low-wage working learners, allowing them to put their talents and skills to better use—and with better reward—our economic returns will be higher, and our society healthier.
[Byron Auguste is the cofounder and CEO of Opportunity@Work, a nonprofit social enterprise with a mission to expand access to career opportunities so that all Americans can work, learn and earn to their full potential in a dynamic economy.]