The Skills In Unskilled Work

Ever so often, I tweet something along the lines of this:

Anyone who has watched well-to-do people be completely flummoxed by the self-checkout aisle might have a take on ‘unskilled’ labor that is more close to this (boldface mine):

IN the casino restaurant where I work, the rush arrives at 10 p.m. 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 categorized 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 categorized as unskilled laborers, and the laws of capitalism clearly state that we are all easily replaceable: Anyone can be trained to do our jobs….

But on some nights, when my multitasking, 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 labor” 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.

In the restaurant business, we call this a “nice carry.”

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.

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.

A little humility and appreciation go a long way. Or as Dave Barry put it, “A person who is nice to you, but rude to the waiter, is not a nice person.”

This entry was posted in Basic Human Decency. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Skills In Unskilled Work

  1. Seth Kahn says:

    Education professor Mike Rose published a book about 10 years ago called _The Mind at Work_ that looks at the different kinds of intelligences people need in order to do what we often write off as “menial” labor. It’s a fantastic book.

  2. M.Graney says:

    Reposted on one of the service industry pages I follow. Well written. I worked in foodservice many years, point well taken. On a trip to Paris I was served at a non-descript bistro, in mid afternoon, a glass of wine by a man who handled the glass so swiftly, and yet placed it down without a sound with such precision, I never forgot it. I don’t know why the simple act of pouring a glass of wine, and placing it down before me left such an impression, I just knew instantly he was a professional and took service seriously. I guess it put into perspective how differently service is viewed by different cultures.

  3. kaleberg says:

    Please, don’t defend the awful design of those self checkout machines. I always have problems with them. For example, just a few days ago I bought two eight ounce packages of cheese. I scanned the first one and carefully put it down on the output weighing scale. I’ve learned over the years to do this carefully and gently or the scale will get confused. Once you’ve confused the scale, you are going to require someone to come by and do a reset. In this case, the package of cheese didn’t register on the scale. I assure you, it was made of ordinary cheese matter and not some exotic massless milk product particles. This triggered a “needs assistance” message. Since no one was around to help, I tried to start over, but there was no way to do so. Instead, I went to the next check out machine and started over. This time, instead of putting my package of cheese on the scale, I hit the check out now button and was able to buy the package. Then, I did the same again with the other package. Luckily, I was just buying two packages of cheese. If I had been buying groceries for a week, checking out each item separately would have been a bit of a challenge.

    I considered this transaction a success. I didn’t need to get someone to reset the machine. This happens maybe half the time. Usually, the scale gets confused, for example, if I slide an item over an inch or two to make room for something bulky. Telling the machine that I am not bagging introduces another set of errors. It doesn’t actually deactivate the scale and its myriad software. I have yet to manage a check out with that option, so I have learned not to try.

    I consider supermarket self checkout machines to be a crap shoot if one has more than a single item with the odds declining as the number of items increases. I only use them when I only have a limited number of items and the lines are long. Despite this I need assistance about half of the time, not counting the times I am buying wine or spirits and need my ID checked by a person. Every ten times or so my assistant has to call over a manager of some sort and someone says something to the effect: “I’ve never seen it do that before.”

    The problem is not my MS in computer science from MIT. No, really. The problem is that the machines are horribly designed. They assume things that make no sense. I have heard maybe a dozen explanations for why the machine needs an accurate weight assessment of all items after they have been scanned and why the “no bagging” option, when available, still generates post-scanning weighing errors. They only make sense in a bizarro way, kind of like something on Fox News where there is a chain of logic but all of the facts are wrong and there is no logical way to get from step one to step two.

    I have a great deal of respect for “unskilled” work and the people who do it. It often involves skills that are far beyond me. Just don’t try and pretend that using a supermarket self checkout machine is unskilled work. I probably should have buckled down and gotten that PhD.

  4. Ron Zie says:

    “Elites” have always been proud of their inability to perform “menial” labor, so pointing out that that work does, in fact, require some skill won’t change their minds one bit.

    • sethkahn says:

      No, but if the argument helps low-status workers resist their low status based on such an arbitrary distinction, that’s a good thing, isn’t it?

Comments are closed.