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 		 [ 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. ] [https://portside.org/] 

 PORTSIDE LABOR 

 LOW WAGE, NOT LOW SKILL: WHY DEVALUING OUR WORKERS MATTERS  
[https://portside.org/2019-02-25/low-wage-not-low-skill-why-devaluing-our-workers-matters]


 

 Byron Auguste 
 February 7, 2019
Forbes
[https://www.forbes.com/sites/byronauguste/2019/02/07/low-wage-not-low-skill-why-devaluing-our-workers-matters/?fbclid=IwAR2hmRwb7cwSzD-4675XBilsXaiJK9LMPiR4VYqJIUGXLHs4ZIbkzf3-g-Q#637b8e3f716d]


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 _ 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. _ 

 Low-wage workers, such as hotel housekeepers, have complex jobs but
are often devalued by the term “low-skilled.”, Dmitry Kalinovsky 

 

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
[https://eml.berkeley.edu/~jrothst/workingpapers/rothstein_mobility_april2017.pdf],
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.”
[https://www.forbes.com/sites/byronauguste/2018/07/05/skills-and-tomorrows-jobs-report-the-usual-suspects-warning-spoilers/] As
industries change, the McKinsey Global Institute forecasts that 44%
or more
[https://www.mckinsey.com/~/media/mckinsey/featured%20insights/future%20of%20organizations/what%20the%20future%20of%20work%20will%20mean%20for%20jobs%20skills%20and%20wages/mgi-jobs-lost-jobs-gained-report-december-6-2017.ashx] 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
[https://www.nelp.org/wp-content/uploads/Growing-Movement-for-15-Dollars.pdf] 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.] 

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