The Search for the Mythical “Unskilled Laborer”

In all of the ways that Capitalism extracts surplus value from the production of the Worker, one of the most devious and manipulative is the imaginary “unskilled laborer”. These are the people that fill the jobs that, supposedly, anyone can fill – custodian, line cook or server/bartender, ditch digger, etc. Jobs that don’t really require any special expertise are dubbed as “unskilled labor”, and these jobs are ridiculously low-paying.

There’s a catch, though – there is no such thing as “unskilled labor”.

Every job takes at least some skill. There is literally no job that I can think of that you can just walk into which doesn’t require some form of training. It could be training in a task to be performed, or training in the method of production preferred by the workplace in particular. Even when a person has the skill set to complete the task without any additional training, there are going to be new-hire orientations, policy reviews, and any number of procedural requirements to learn.

The task at hand may be a simple one. Regardless, there is no job where you walk into the workplace on your first day and are expected to know, naturally and with no training, exactly how your new employer wants your particular job to be done.

“Unskilled” is a lie told to devalue work and pay less wages to the worker because, supposedly, “anybody can do it”. The level of skill required for certain jobs may not be particularly specialized, but this in no way should designate any job as “unskilled”. Devaluing the skills of the worker is the means, increasing surplus value is the end. Calling these jobs “unskilled” is how devaluing is justified.

We can see evidence of this exact effect across many industries – many of which require much more skill than people want to admit to. One that I can speak on from personal experience is the Hospitality Industry, in particular, the Food and Beverage Service Industry – bars, restaurants, catering, institutional kitchens, etc. The plain and simple fact of the matter, which anybody who has spent any amount of time in the foodservice industry can attest to, is that some people can hack it in that business, and others can’t.

Some people can cook. Some can’t. Of those that can cook at home, most can’t cook on a level required for a professional kitchen. It’s a unique person that can make a career out of cooking. But despite this very demonstrable fact, there is still the unmistakable stereotype that “anybody can flip burgers”. That unless you are a formally trained chef in a five-star restaurant, anybody can do your job.

But anybody that has worked in a kitchen knows full well that not anybody can do that job. In fact, the people who tried, and couldn’t hack it, know even better that it is a job that takes a unique personal character and a skill set that doesn’t just come naturally. And I’m not just talking about high-end fine dining, or high-volume chains. This includes the short order cook at the dive bar. The grill cook in a fast-food chain. The dishwasher in every single kitchen ever.

If evidence you require, look no further than the fresh, green graduate from culinary school that had never once stepped foot in a professional kitchen when they decided to go through that training. Kitchen workers have all met this person – decided that cooking would be a fun, unconventional career path, went to Johnson & Wales or Culinary Institute, learned a bunch about the “chemistry of cooking” and “new food trends”, full of all kinds of confidence until that first Friday night with tickets coming in non-stop and no time to focus on just one perfect dish at a time. Instead, there’s 30 different orders, all with special instructions and/or substitutions, and the new kid looks like a deer in headlights, bewildered until the cook at the next station comes and takes over for them. Even worse if Chef has to come over and bail him out.

No, not everyone can do that job. Look further in that same industry for examples of devalued skill sets that are called “unskilled labor” although few people can actually perform well. Imagine justifying wages lower than federal minimums on the pretense that every person has the organizational skills, the people skills, the memory, and the efficiency to serve 40 customers at different tables who all want different things and personal attention, and they want it now.

Look at the bartender who has memorized the ingredients to dozens, even hundreds, of cocktails, the ABV of the 48 different draft beers offered, have the patience to deal with drunken patrons, the patrons that want to sample every one of those 48 beers before they order a Jack & Coke, people who want seven completely different shots, and, hey, you think you could throw in a free one for the Birthday girl?

Even though this is obviously not the case, these jobs and employees are considered “unskilled labor”, and these skill sets have been devalued so much that in many states the bar or restaurant isn’t even required to pay minimum wage to these workers, and after all of this, they still are subject to the judgment of the customer, hoping for enough money in tips to survive another day or two. Many times, they don’t even receive a paycheck at all, and survive strictly on the grace of their customers.

Free labor. With a free sales team made of people with a highly specialized skill set that has been devalued to the point of basically begging.

There are plenty of other examples of this across all of Modern Industry. From the office building mailroom to hotel housekeeping to produce harvesting – all jobs that not only require certain skills but are also devalued as “unskilled” simply because most people aren’t willing to do them. Look at the seasonal field worker – with a large undocumented laborer population, unable to stand up for themselves and demand fair pay out of fear of the US Gestapo ICE Agents ripping their families apart. And, perhaps the action of picking the fruit from a tree isn’t particularly difficult, but 16 hours in the hot sun certainly is. I’d bet that most people who consider that labor “unskilled” would quit after hour 2.

“But, William!” you say. “That is unskilled labor, anybody can do it, it’s just very tough work because it’s manual labor!” At the same time, and maybe in the same breath, you’ll tell me that dealing with and overcoming adversity is a skill all unto itself. Somehow, this doesn’t count in the case of the Field Worker who endures poor conditions and poor treatment and low pay that you wouldn’t stand for in your own work. That’s not even considering the ridiculous nature of the argument that you are advancing that this job just isn’t worth very much money when it’s too tough for you to be willing to do yourself. You don’t want to do this work, but you certainly need this work to be done – seems like this job would be worth a little more. It has a value in use that is universal, yet the compensation for this work is negligible.

And this is before we even get to the completely inhumane idea that some people are less deserving of the basic necessities of survival than others, regardless of the number of hours worked, the organizational skills needed, the “people skills” needed, or the back-breaking intensity of the job. And if they are physically incapable of producing surplus value? Well, those freeloaders are even less deserving of survival, even less deserving of a life without hunger or homelessness, with adequate healthcare and clean water.

So, “unskilled labor” does not exist, only devalued skills. But, other than just saying the magic words “unskilled labor”, how are these skill sets devalued?

Aside from the anomaly of lower pay for undesirable work, there are actually a number of ways that a skill is devalued, including the division of labor. Where a “skilled trade” once took years to master, the steps of that trade have been broken down and individualized, and a person can be trained to perform this task in a matter of hours. Instead of the mastery of a trade, each Worker only has one skill to master in repetition as part of a group of people who now complete the job that was once the domain of the trademaster. Since there is only one skill required, the Worker is now dispensable. There is increased competition between Workers to perform this job, since the mastery of this trade is no longer needed to produce the commodity. Competition devalues those skill sets even further, because one Worker is willing to do that job for slightly less than another Worker.

There is also the less obvious, but far more insidious process of the un- or under-education of the public. The under-education is plain to see, to be sure, but how it intersects with and drives the “unskilled” labor pool is less overt. The intentional under-education of the Working Class keeps the labor pool of “unskilled Workers” well supplied, contributing even more to the competition between Workers and driving wages further down.

This systematic under-education gives Labor a ladder-like quality, where the ability to scale the ladder is directly proportional to the wealth that a person has. There are certainly exceptions to this rule – poor Working Class kids who get scholarships to prestigious universities, or who might catch a break and gain sports fame or musicianship – but these exceptions seem to confirm the rule rather than disprove it. For every person who makes it out of the Working Class into the Bourgeoisie, there are exponentially more people who must necessarily be oppressed and exploited.

The Revolutionary Left Radio podcast recently did an episode with Derek Ford, an educational theorist who teaches classes in philosophy and history of education. Speaking about Ford’s recent trip to the DPRK, an interesting tangent led the discussion to the public school system in the US. One of the more remarkable points brought up was the similarities between public school and the modern workplace.

Schooling is increasingly becoming less about education – encouraging critical thinking and the development of the individual to the fullest – and more about being trained to know what to do when a bell rings, or when you are tasked with an assignment. In effect, it is nothing but the training grounds for a pool of “unskilled” laborers that will do jobs that have been devalued to the point of being unable to sustain the necessities of life for the Worker, but that society could not function without.

We can see this ladder-like effect in practice with the system of higher education in the US as well. Those who wish to elevate their economic status can attend college, if they can afford it, or if they can find the right people willing to give/loan them the money. Yet, today, even that is not enough to guarantee that the Worker will be able to find employment in their field of expertise. There are plenty of college graduates who are tending bars.

There is a peculiar aspect of this ladder of education in the US, where people are told from birth that success comes from hard work, and that every person has an equal opportunity, if only the poor would pull up their bootstraps, etc. However, there is no debate to be had that the difficulty of rising from one level of the ladder to the next decreases in inverse proportion to the individual’s economic status. In other words, the wealthier that person’s family is, the easier it is to attain those higher levels of education at more prestigious schools, which in turn gives them even more advantage to an already extremely privileged class of people, and all the bootstrapping in the world isn’t going to change that. Combine this with the aspect of institutional racism shown by the systematic underfunding of schools in certain districts that happen to be in communities that are made predominantly of minorities, and we now have created a cyclical reproduction of the “unskilled” labor pool.

These things are incredibly important in understanding the concept of “Unskilled Labor”, and how it is, in reality, nothing but a lie told to the Working Class by the Capitalist in order to continue exploiting more and more surplus value from the Labor Force. But, even in the simplest of jobs, there has to be some level of skill involved. Using this term is nothing but a degrading of the Worker, a way to devalue skills and labor needed to perform some of the most essential functions in society. “Unskilled Labor” is a justification for continued exploitation, and a part of a greater system of intentional under-education that results in an endless pool of cheap labor, thereby generating more and more profit and wealth for the Capitalist. And, with the “bootstraps” myth spouted by many who’ve never worked a single day in their lives, they have discovered a way to convince the poor Working Class to blame themselves rather than the Capitalist who appropriates the value of their labor.

There is no such thing as a “real job”. Every job in our society fulfills some essential need in one way or another. They are all “real jobs”. Frankly, I’d like to see any of these chumps walk into my kitchen and do what I do as well as I do it. I get the feeling that they’d quit, crying, within a week. If nothing else, the Workers of the World can feel a sense of pride that the wealthiest on the planet simply cannot do these jobs that supposedly anybody can do. So much for being elites.


In solidarity.

William Forbin

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