There is no such thing as a low-skilled worker

Skilled service.
Skilled service.
Image: Reuters
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A lot of people have had the experience of applying for a job that involves tasks they haven’t done before, but probably could learn how to do, given the chance. A salesperson tries for a managerial position despite not having run a team before; a graphic designer applies to a job that involves animation, trusting that they’ll be able to master the new skill. That’s how people often move up to roles with higher pay—at least in the white-collar world.

That’s now how it typically works for “low-skilled workers,” perhaps in part because of the phrase itself.

How we refer to a group of people can shape their circumstances. Consider the difference between “illegal aliens” and “undocumented people,” or between “migrants” and “refugees.” The policy implications for groups like these can vary with the amount of empathy and dignity we show them.

There’s not much dignity in being referred to as a “low-skilled” or “unskilled” worker. But these phrases get bandied about so easily in economics, politics, and the press that it’s easy to miss that they’re insults.

The terms refer to people who serve and prepare food, stock shelves, care for children and the elderly, and keep schools and hospitals clean—that is, necessary and difficult work, of the kind that’s frequently undervalued and underpaid.

Not everyone can do these jobs

It’s true that these jobs don’t require advanced degrees. But it’s also a stretch to suggest (as the phrase “low-skilled” implies) that anyone can do them. It takes enormous physical and mental stamina to, say, pick cherries by hand. There’s plenty of skill involved in waiting tables: remembering orders, maneuvering gracefully between crowded tables, handling entitled customers as they gripe over the fact that there’s too much ice in their water. And any parent can attest that it requires a lot of skill to keep a whole group of young children safe, healthy, and entertained.

People in these jobs often become better at them with time and experience, while others may give them a try and find that they’re not cut out for the work. Yet the phrase implicitly upholds the status quo of employers paying their staff often sub-living wages—after all, if any person can do the job, and workers are endlessly abundant and replaceable, then why bother with benefits or a better salary?

A new way of thinking about jobs

A new working paper, posted by the National Bureau of Economic Research, proposes a different moniker for the workers often referred to as low-skilled: STARS, or “skilled through alternative routes.” This term is tied to the solutions the authors propose for addressing income inequality in the US.

STARS, according to the paper, are “individuals who are at least 25 years old, graduated from high school, and have skills and work experience, but don’t hold a four-year college degree.”  Instead they might have gained skills through community college, military service, credentialing programs, and, of course, on-the-job learning.

The goal in using the term STARS is to counteract the biases toward workers in positions frequently considered to be low-prestige, thereby expanding the range of possible roles for which they might be qualified. “By using the STARs language, you begin to think of talent outside of the limiting parameters of degree and non-degree,” say authors Peter Blair, an assistant professor of education at Harvard University; Papia Debroy, senior vice president of insights at Opportunity@Work; and Justin Heck, a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Michigan.

The path to upward mobility

The paper, which has not yet been peer reviewed, is concerned with ways to give STARs more upward mobility.

Conventional wisdom holds that the best thing low-wage workers can do to increase their earning power is to get a college degree. After all, median lifetime earnings for bachelor’s degree holders in the US are more than twice as high as those with no more than a high school diploma, and 70% higher than those with an associate’s degree, as of 2018, according to research published by the Brookings Institution. The same research shows that at their career peak (around 30 years since entering the workforce), the median annual earnings for four-year degree holders is $68,000, compared to $35,000 for those with only a high school education.

The opportunity gap

Certainly getting more education is one way to improve earning potential. But “it shouldn’t be the only pathway to this opportunity,” the STARS researchers say. Blair, Debroy, and Heck suggest there’s another way to give STARS more career mobility, and that’s by changing employers’ assumptions about which workers deserve the opportunity to learn new skills on the job.

“Our work finds that throughout the labor market, workers with bachelor’s degrees are given unique access to higher-paying jobs where they can earn and learn simultaneously,” the authors write. While all workers are able to get new jobs at similar skill levels as their previous jobs, “STARs experience more friction transitioning to higher wage work than do workers with bachelor’s degrees.”

This “opportunity gap,” the researchers say, helps drive income inequality. In other words, one reason for the significant wage gap between college graduates and those without bachelor’s degrees lies in employers’ hesitance to bet on the latter group’s ability to succeed in a different kind of role.

As one illustration of the financial consequences of the opportunity gap, the paper looked at the wages of a group of Americans who were 25 years old in 1986. Workers with only high school diplomas were 55 years old before they earned as much as the college graduates did at age 25, when they were just starting out.

The flawed signal of four-year degrees

Why is it that employers are more willing to take a chance on people with bachelor’s degrees? The authors say that degree requirements have become a convenient way for employers to sort through job applicants, where college education is see as a signal of a person’s potential.

The problem is that it’s unclear whether a college degree is a particularly good signal of workers’ aptitude, or more of a sign of the candidate’s race and income level. According to 2016 data from the National Center for Education Statistics, 35% of white Americans had a college degree or higher by age 25, compared to 21% of Black Americans and 15% of Hispanic Americans,.

When it comes to the connection between educational attainment and family income, 60% of US high school graduates in the top quartile of income graduated from college eight years later, compared to 15% in the bottom quartile, according to a 2016 report from the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education and the University of Pennsylvania Alliance for Higher Education. The problem with making degrees a qualification for jobs that don’t really need them lies in “how many talented workers the degree requirement is leading [employers] to overlook,” as the study’s authors explain.

A more equitable and practical solution would be for employers to stop placing so much emphasis on bachelor’s degrees as a prerequisite, and instead open up more opportunities for less-educated workers to learn on the job when they’re applying for roles that pay higher wages.

The importance of learning on the job

So what will it take to make these opportunities a reality? There are specific company policy changes that would help. The authors suggest possible options including “removing degree requirements and intentionally sourcing and recruiting STARs”—both from lower-paying jobs within the organization, and from outside the company.

But part of the work will involve bringing about a mindset shift among employers. “Most workers are hired into positions without the full set of skills to perform the job well on day one,” the authors write. Rather, “[m]any of the skills needed to do the job well are learned by working alongside more experienced peers and through the act of doing the job.”

Meanwhile, the fallacy of undervaluing STARS workers has been on full display throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. People with no education beyond a high-school degree have made up the majority of essential workers, in sectors ranging from food service to transportation to healthcare, according to estimates by the nonprofit Opportunities@Work.

The difficulties of life under lockdown during the pandemic, not to mention the risks that many service workers were required to undertake, made the importance of grocery-store workers and delivery drivers impossible to ignore. “It should be obvious now, if it wasn’t before, that there’s no such thing as unskilled labor—that low-wage work is as essential and integral to daily life as the labor performed by accountants or lawyers,” Sarah Jones wrote for New York Magazine in April 2020.

As many employers struggle to hire sufficient number of workers in food service, retail, and other roles now understood as essential, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it’s time to change not just the way that society refers to workers in this group, but the way it treats them.