Service Work Is Skilled Work – Get Over It

A barista smiles in front of an espresso machine, arms folded.

A barista smiles in front of an espresso machine, arms folded.

Originally published on Medium and republished here with the author’s permission.

Factory jobs are gone. Barista jobs are here to stay. It’s time to recognize that and pay people accordingly.

When confronted with a new report from the National Employment Law Project in May of last year, which found no correlation between historic minimum wage increases and job losses in key sectors like restaurants and retail, economist David Neumark did what a lot of opponents to a higher wage did: He pivoted the conversation away from simple warnings of job losses and toward concerns about the minimum wage’s “effects on low-skilled workers.”

This is not surprising.

Neumark has spent over a decade writing about “low-skilled” workers and releasing studies which show that so-called “low-skilled” workers are the most impacted by higher minimum wages.

This categorization of part of the workforce as “low-skilled” has become fairly commonplace, and is most often used to describe employees in the service sector.

However, the actual lack of skills is rarely defined. Some economists may break it down by education level, while others use squishier definitions.

This piece from the Department of Labor defines “low-skilled workers” as “adults [who] lack the basic math and reading skills, work habits, and interpersonal skills” to succeed in the job market.

In most situations, and in absence of a clear definition, “low-skilled” is really just a mildly nicer (but no less classist) version of “burger-flipper,” which you often find used as shorthand for minimum-wage workers.

There are quite a few documents and briefs released by “free market” economists warning that higher wages will hurt those they’re supposed to help dating back to, well, the signing of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 – though few actually outline which skills the workers reportedly don’t have.

“Low-skilled” work is often set up in rhetorical opposition to “family-wage” work, like jobs in manufacturing and other traditionally blue-collar American industries.

When conservative candidates say that the American middle class is shrinking and acknowledge that wages have stagnated, they’re usually referring not to service work, but instead to factory and labor jobs – “good jobs,” they may even call them – in spite of the fact that we all know that a lot of those jobs are just not coming back.

In the same breath, these individuals will also decry the fact that the jobs we do have are not good jobs, despite the fact that many of these jobs were created during the decline of manufacturing. They’re “low-wage jobs,” which these same people will typically conflate with “low-skilled jobs.”

But here is a not-particularly-radical idea:

What if the jobs that we tend to consider “low-skilled” jobs actually require a lot of skills that have nothing to do with high school education or even math and reading? What if the problem isn’t that “good jobs” are going away while “bad jobs” are burgeoning, but rather, that we are collectively deeply confused about what a good job actually is?

In an op-ed for the New York Times last year, Brittany Bronson pretty clearly laid out the skills required to work “low-skilled” jobs:

“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.”

Read in a vacuum, this could just as easily be a passage about manufacturing work, which, in many instances, is so rote and so repetitive that it literally causes traumatic injuries.

What, then, is the difference, between putting parts together and putting a latte together? Between quality assurance on a production line and a server’s need to ensure that every meal makes it to every customer exactly as they ordered it?

Is it the visibility (you see someone bringing food to a table, so it seems easy enough) or possibly the familiarity (you cook food at home, so certainly, you could do it in an industrial kitchen)? Maybe it’s because of all the times you recall receiving not great service (and not all the times the service was totally decent, but you didn’t log those away)?

(A video I had to watch to get a “low-skill” job as a barista in the year following my college graduation – twenty-one minutes of explaining how to create a rosetta. Eventually I got the technique down pat, but it took a lot of training.)

It’s impossible to discuss the relatively arbitrary distinction between “good jobs” and “low-skilled jobs” without mentioning the very clear race, class, age, and gender differences between the individuals working these jobs.

The minimum wage workforce is disproportionately made up of women and people of color. They also tend to come from one end of the age spectrum or the other; boosting the minimum wage has been found to be a boon for senior citizens.

Meanwhile, women and people of color make up a much a less-than-proportionate population of the workforce in most manufacturing fields. (Women make up close to half of the overall workforce, but the DOL finds that just over 5% of sheet metal workers are female, for example.)

Which means it’s a little bit difficult to see how “low-skilled” isn’t, on its face, a term that is used to determine race and gender, rather than actual skill.

Additionally, the idea that most minimum wage workers are under-educated is also false. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a total of 87.6% of the workforce currently earning at or below the minimum wage have high school diplomas or more, and close to 11% have a bachelor’s degree or higher.

A pie chart showing the highest level of education achieved by low-wage earners. Numbers fro the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Not that it should matter. One of the biggest advantages of factory work, of those “good” blue-collar jobs, has always been that they don’t require a degree.

And of course, this breakdown doesn’t even begin to take into account the many years of education that many back-of-house restaurant workers may pay large sums of money to achieve, simply to be considered “low-skilled” because their line of work happens to involve food, rather than metal.

Lawmakers, economists, and business lobbyists also frequently paint “low-skilled” workers as the main recipients of social services (probably because their wages are so low), but they’re also certainly not the only ones who require help.

Factory workers – yes, the workers of those “good” manufacturing jobs – still largely need help because they, too, are working at just around the minimum wage.

From the Washington Post:

“It used to be that these blue-collar jobs provided a ‘ladder to the middle class’ for workers without college degrees, said [Ken] Jacobs, the chair of Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. The findings show, Jacobs said, that ‘with manufacturing jobs, production jobs, that’s really no longer true. The new production jobs are less likely to be union and more likely to be low wages.’

“Many of the workers who draw supplementary government assistance work full time, in jobs that… are staffed through temping agencies. Nearly half the families of production workers who logged at least 35 hours a week, 45 weeks a year, and who were employed through staffing agencies, received government welfare of some kind, the report found.”

Indeed, factory workers – for as much as they are held up as the last hope of the American economy – are being subjected to the same kinds of treatment as those “low-skilled” baristas and servers.

And yet, when we talk about “low-skilled” and “low-wage” jobs, we conveniently pretend that the Great Middle-Class Machine known as factory work is somehow exempt from the wage suppression that has decreased the purchasing power of the majority of Americans.

A large part of this is due to the changes in the labor market  –  the decreased power of unions is a huge factor  –  but it’s also absolutely a symptom of a larger problem which has been permitted to continue unchecked, which is the implicit classism that comes with dividing workers into the categories of “low-skilled” and “skilled” without defining what we actually consider a skill.

To hear politicians and conservative economists talk about it, even the difficult, exhausting, demanding work that restaurant require is the domain of those who fundamentally lack skills to move out of their current socioeconomic position, and into one which requires skills and, as a result, earns them more money.

But of course, that’s not the case – something anyone who denounces restaurant work as “low-skilled” might learn if they tried it.

Speaking as a person who has worked both behind a laptop and a La Marzocco espresso machine, I can attest that the latter requires just as much finesse as the former, if not more.

So what do we do when a) those “good jobs” are drying up; b) they don’t really pay that much anyway, and c) they don’t actually require that much more skill to begin with?

It should be simple enough: We acknowledge that minimum-wage work does require some skills – in fact, quite a number of skills – and that service work, home health care work, retail work, and hospitality work offer not just some lesser kind of job, but rather, the “good jobs” we’ve all been hearing so much about.

It is mutually beneficial to do this.

Service work presents numerous advantages. And adjusting our thinking about how service workers should be compensated could be a huge step in reducing income inequality.

One of the great woes of the American economy is that manufacturing and other “good jobs” are being moved overseas. Service jobs, meanwhile, remain staples of their community. Restaurants, retail, home health care, hospitality, administrative work, and other low-wage jobs are tethered to the neighborhoods that they serve.

Unlike factory jobs, which can easily be relocated to wherever the labor is cheapest, service industry work – those “low-skilled” positions – necessarily must stay close to where people live, which offers them a distinct advantage.

And what about the threat of automation? Surely, you’ve seen the fear-mongering around robots taking jobs if the cost of labor gets too high.

But this is another area where service work trumps manufacturing. Assembly line work was relatively easy to automate, which much of the work required of servers, baristas, custodial staff, and other service staffers simply can’t be performed by robots yet (or possibly ever).

Seriously, a robot can barely be taught to fold a towel, let alone clean an entire hotel room or deliver food through a drive-thru. And really, have you priced out a kiosk lately? The cost of maintenance alone is well above even a $15 minimum wage for a worker, and the kiosk won’t clean itself. The robots-will-replace-you-all threat is simply not based in fact.

The classification of some work as “low-skilled” has, traditionally, been used as a way to justify low wages and, as result, subsidize employers who pay these wages.

If we’re truly serious about narrowing the income gap and bolstering the middle class, we need to come clean to ourselves about our own biases around who “deserves” to be middle-class – and what middle-class work actually looks like.

There is nothing about serving tables or making lattes that’s any less skilled than those “good jobs.” The difference is who’s doing the work and what work they’re doing.

Thanks to Paul Constant.

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Hanna Brooks Olsen is Contributing Writer for Everyday Feminism. She is a writer, small human, and a Millennial. Her interests are politics, podcasts, Pac-12 football, feminism, and Oxford commas. She is curious to a fault. Follow her on Twitter @mshannabrooks. Read her articles here.