Low-skilled work needs a lot of skill to do well

LAS VEGAS • In the casino restaurant where I work, the rush arrives at 10pm. 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 categorised 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 categorised as unskilled labourers, 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".

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.

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 multi-tasking 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 labour" 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.

According to the writer, the repetitive nature of jobs, such as cleaning, is perceived to define workers' limitations, rather than their capabilities. Because of the low-paying status of low-skilled work, it is deemed a dead end. -PHOTO: REUTERS

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 1,000th time knows that muscle memory and precision are powerful tools. But at the workplace, there are no advanced graphics or slow-motion replays highlighting the efficiency of movement, the prioritising 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 specialise.

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 to something better.

And, of course, consumers suffer as well: When you witness a great restaurant server or see a particularly effective janitor at work, you are not observing a freak talent, but someone who took the time to learn his job and improve on it. Now imagine if more "low-skilled" workers were given the compensation, job security and encouragement to do the same.

In my work as a college instructor, I see students who aspire to do "better" than low-skilled work. Many are the sons and daughters of restaurant workers and housekeepers, the first in their family to attend college, and they choose the university in the assured belief that with their education, they will avoid the types of jobs their parents hold.

One student recently told me that the sole reason he is pursuing a degree is that he does not "want to work in a job that requires no skills".

As much as I want to reassure him that his education will guarantee him that, I cannot. The fact is, more and more college graduates are going to end up in jobs that do not draw on the skills they paid so much to get. That is all the more reason we need to be doing a better job of making low-skilled jobs worth having, above all, by raising the minimum wage, and significantly more than current measures propose.

Such efforts are subject to endless debate over whether raising the minimum wage means inflation, decreased employment for younger workers and a more competitive market for task-oriented jobs.

But the more difficult challenge is to redefine the language and perceptions that trap large segments of reliable workers in poverty. All work can be executed with skill, but denying that fact is useful to those who justify the poor treatment of, and unfair compensation for, millions of workers.

Convincing those workers that their treatment is temporary, that if they just keep working harder, learn to do their tasks more quickly, more efficiently, more fluidly, they will eventually surpass it - this is a myth we cannot keep telling.


•Brittany Bronson is an English instructor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, a restaurant server and a contributing opinion writer.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 03, 2015, with the headline 'Low-skilled work needs a lot of skill to do well'. Subscribe