If you’ve ever worked in a retail, food service, maintenance, or similar low-income job you could probably think of at least a few things you learned while working there. Even if they were things as common as how to log your working hours, how to restock inventory, or how to handle a rush of customers who all want their morning coffee. If you worked that job long enough, chances are you developed some of your own “tips and tricks” to get things done better.

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Maybe you even passed some of those things you learned along to other workers. This sort of on-the-job learning is key to building the skills necessary to succeed in any line of work.

But, if you haven’t worked a job like the ones above, you’re probably thinking that you've done those things too. And you’d be absolutely right. But why might some people insist on describing the first group of workers as “unskilled?”

The simple answer is “because people find it useful” - but let’s take a critical look at what “use” comes from applying labels like “skilled” and “unskilled” and why someone might not want you to think about that at all.

What does “unskilled” even mean?

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Try this for yourself: type “what does unskilled labor mean” into your favorite internet search engine. If nothing else, you’ll find that there’s no shortage of people who want to tell you what it means. But take a closer look at a few of the top results and you’ll probably notice that each of those results likely has a different take on what exactly “unskilled labor” means.

Some will say it describes the worker: someone who personally lacks advanced training. Some use it to describe a job that doesn’t require identifiable skills to perform, while others still will use it to describe anyone currently working that job.

So which is it? Is “unskilled labor” a type of person? Or is it a job? Or is it a person working a particular type of job? Without a clear, unambiguous definition it’s impossible to apply these labels objectively. So what are some reasons a person might want to split workers into “unskilled” and “skilled” categories if they’re not simply applying an objective standard?

The Use of taxonomy and classes

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Sometimes it can be useful to group individuals into particular classes. In biology, labeling some animals “vertebrates” and others as “invertebrates” is useful when discussing issues related to skeletal structures or nervous systems. But unlike the “unskilled” classification, it’s easy to apply the “vertebrate” standard because any creature clearly either does or does not have a spine.

But when these classifications draw on subjective traits, they cease to be useful for any objective purpose and become specifically suited to pushing the particular agenda of whoever is doing the labeling at the moment. The very idea of “race” among humans is a perfect (and tragic) example of this as there is no biological basis for race. Though it’s still the justification for so much racially motivated cruelty and exploitation to this day.

Why divide workers?

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Anytime you see or hear someone trying to divide populations into groups like this it’s important to try and understand why they might be doing so and what their motivations could be. Unfortunately, because of the ambiguous use of “unskilled labor” we can only discuss possibilities, but here are some possible goals that arbitrarily dividing workers can serve:

  • Create a psychological advantage. By creating two distinct groups, someone can leverage “contrast effect” bias to easily sway opinions. The contrast effect is a cognitive bias that leads people to see distorted differences between objects being compared - even if those differences are inconsequential. Some optical illusions are a great example of this, though the effect can also occur with more complex subjects (like when comparing two different sets of job duties) and can be triggered by either explicit or implicit comparisons.
  • Disempower “unskilled” workers. There’s a strong correlation between minimum wage jobs (and workers who earn a minimum wage) and the “unskilled” label. Someone may try to leverage this correlation as support for another argument. For example, arguing against raising the minimum wage because those jobs “aren’t supposed to pay a ‘living’ wage” because “they’re just stepping stones into the workforce.” But don’t forget how quickly “unskilled” workers became “essential” during the COVID-19 pandemic. We need the skills that keep grocery stores stocked just as much as we need the skills to develop vaccines.
  • Demotivate “skilled” workers. If you constantly tell a smaller subset of workers that they’re “skilled” and “valuable” it’s possible to convince them that they don’t need to take action to protect themselves. After all, why would anyone harm a valuable commodity? But the truth is that “skilled” workers are still subject to the same authoritarian rule that “unskilled” workers are and are consequently no more capable at “making it on their own” than anyone else. There’s also a secondary effect since many jobs considered “skilled” involve organizing and planning skills. These skills could prove valuable to a workplace’s efforts to unionize, but are harder for “unskilled” workers to access if they’re segregated.
  • Invent a barrier to entry. Sometimes people just want a reason to keep people out. You can see examples of this anytime anyone argues that we should only allow “skilled” immigration from “good” countries, or anytime you read a job post that describes itself as somehow both “entry level” and “requiring 3 to 5 years of experience” as if that requirement makes any sense at all.
  • Foster animosity and alienation. Try talking to an “unskilled worker” after years of working their “unskilled job.” They could tell you about how it was hard, back-breaking labor, and maybe they even feel positively about that experience. But try and bring up how office workers are also abused and you might find the sympathy well a bit dry. Likewise, “skilled” labor is largely excused from expectations of long-term physical labor and will have a harder time relating to and understanding how much suffering a “simple, unskilled job that anyone could do” can cause over a lifetime.

What can we do?

If we want to counter any of the above effects, we must first realize that dividing people by labeling is a form of passive aggression. That is, these tactics are purposefully used to achieve any or all of the above without sounding like that’s what the person actually wants. But in realizing it as such, we can see the way to defeat it.

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When someone relies on passive-aggressiveness, it’s usually because they’re not ready yet to declare their intentions openly. This could be because they either don’t yet have the support they feel is necessary to “win over the room” or simply because subtle tactics are harder to spot and actively fight against than overt ones. Either way, the answer, like rock to scissors, is to deny them the use of “passivity.” Here are a few tips for getting someone to reveal what they truly believe and why:

  • Ask simple, direct, open-ended questions. Try asking things like “what point are you trying to make” or “what exactly do you mean by ‘unskilled.’”  Simple clarifying questions like these are unlikely to seem like argumentative attacks, but will force someone to begin pinning down their beliefs and deny them the ability to confuse others with constantly shifting ambiguous definitions. And by using open-ended questions (avoiding “yes or no” questions) you’ll encourage more authentic and revealing responses.
  • Present common examples. Another counter-tactic is to present hypothetical examples to see how someone’s “skilled or unskilled” test works (or doesn’t work). Who exactly is skilled or unskilled? What about a worker with an advanced degree working a retail job to make ends meet? What about a minimum wage job that requires using multiple software systems and requires specific safety training (like a hardware store worker)? What about a worker who simply likes to work many different types of jobs to satisfy their own curiosity - are they skilled or unskilled if they can so easily move between industries?
  • Let go of our own prejudices. This is possibly the hardest tip to follow, but also the most important. These tactics are only useful if they can connect with prejudiced ideas we’ve already internalized. In order to stop thinking of others as “skilled” or “unskilled” we have to stop thinking of ourselves as those things first. Realize that while we’re all distinct and different, we also all have the same basic needs.

Labor isn’t a commodity; it’s a product

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Ultimately, how we each accomplish the work we’re expected to do is up to us and made possible by our own unique skills. Because of that, labor isn’t simply a fungible commodity that can be neatly swapped in and out as long as “the skills match” - no matter how hard a human resources department wants to believe. Instead, it’s a unique product created by an individual worker. Yes, different workers can perform the same job, but the ultimate qualities of their work are distinct and unique.

As much as we might like to cleanly divide and classify work for whatever purpose, doing so comes at the enormous risk of exploitation by the tactics laid out above. As workers, it’s up to us to disarm and defeat those tactics by working together to eliminate the arbitrary divisions that make them possible in the first place.