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Skills. Who needs them?

In the UK, we currently have 270k more people employed than ever. There are also a record 1.1 million job vacancies.

How can this be?

Simple really. Brexit.

There are 100k fewer HGV drivers than needed, and a similar number of butchers who are needed to legally slaughter farm animals.

Vegetables are rotting in the fields.

Why?

Brexit. It forced overseas workers to consider their position in the UK, and feeling unwelcome, they left the country in their droves, leaving a dearth of people willing to undertake ‘unskilled’ jobs, often in poor conditions, for low pay. Quite simply, British people don’t want to do the jobs others were doing for us.  

The UK government has kindly offered to waive residency legalities and offer 50,000 drivers the chance to come here and help us out till Christmas. Only 27 have taken us up on this kind offer. 

Our home-grown HGV drivers have also been lured into working for Amazon (who are offering £3,000 sign-on fees), meaning supply chains are straining under the pressure. 

The other day I saw a clip of the famous TV chef, Keith Floyd, in the kitchen of a small French bakery. There were two men working; one kneaded the dough into round loaves, punched a hole in the middle (to identify it as theirs), sliced it with a knife, to release some air and, without looking, lobbed it onto the wooden, shovel-like tool his partner used to slide the loaf into the oven. The operation was slick and mesmeric and led the often-sozzled Floyd to muse on the value of these bakers and the role of the bakery in the community. 

The UK has a problem with a dearth of workers and it is a similar picture in the US, where they too have a workforce ‘skills gap’, or mismatch problem, which has been exacerbated by the pandemic.The New York Times says millions of people need to ‘upskill’. 

I think the main problem around these policies is one of  semantics. The term ‘low-skill’ is derogatory and often stems from discrimination and it views the workers as the problem, as opposed to poor working conditions, sexism, racism and social and educational infrastructures.

Perhaps the phrase ‘low-skill’ should be changed to ‘essential’ and such jobs remunerated accordingly. 

The issue for individual workers is not that they necessarily lack skills in general, but that they might lack certain specific capacities or qualifications. Many foreign-born workers cannot use employment certificates earned abroad in their new country, or possibly lack language skills, so an architect may become a taxi driver, but is certainly not low-skilled. Many ‘low-skilled’ workers are young and are just ‘inexperienced’. 

In fact many ‘low-skilled’ jobs, as with the bakers, held by ‘low-skilled workers’ are anything but. Many are difficult, physically and emotionally taxing jobs that, in fact, require employees to develop extraordinary skills. A great deal of skill is necessary to wash a lunch rush’s worth of dishes. A great deal of skill is required to dress someone in a care home, or control a class of four-year-olds. Picking broccoli at £30 an hour demands the fitness of an athlete. 

The low-skill label is a social construct, reflecting, partially, pre-existing structural prejudices in society. We understand jobs to be low-skill because of the kinds of people who hold those jobs; we see certain skills as valuable because of the kinds of people asked to use those skills; we ignore other skills because of the kinds of people asked to use them; and we shunt workers into “low-skill” jobs due to circumstances out of their control.

The point is not that all jobs require the same skills or the same capacities. The point is not to dissuade workers from spending more time in school or training. The point is not that all jobs are equally difficult. The point is that we scarcely stop to recognize how our biases inform our understanding of what skilled work is and whose work matters. 

The Harvard economist, Claudia Goldin, has said that women joining a given profession tends to ‘reduce the prestige’ in that profession; she calls this the ‘pollution theory of discrimination.’ Other research shows that pay starts dropping when women arrive.

The pandemic has helped us recategorize many ‘low-skill’ jobs as ‘essential’ ones; jobs integral to the functioning of the economy, but whose importance so often does not translate into fair pay and good benefits. The danger is that we will lose that paradigm shift as the world normalises again. Cashiers and receptionists and delivery drivers and parents’ helpers will once again be seen as economic deadweight, rather than vital economic utilities.

Upskilling is obviously a great idea, but how can people on the minimum wage, or universal credit afford to do this? 

The problem is not with the workers, it’s with the jobs and policy infrastructure. Too many jobs pay too little, they are too dangerous, have no benefits, no union support and are inaccessible to the sick, the disabled, or parents. 

The Guardian journalist, Zoe Williams, wrote recently: “Life feels increasingly like a morality tale, an intricate and epic Dickensian lesson, in which an idiot society undervalues its people for years, until a series of acceleratingly unfortunate events forces a confrontation with reality. Suddenly the realisation dawns that all those low-skill jobs are high-skilled, actually. Those people who were described by the discourse as not aspirational enough were actually the ones keeping the show on the road. We will claw some collective wisdom out of this eventually; but, inevitably, there is a short phase of denial, in which a load of people pushing 50 are sitting here going: ‘I reckon I’d actually be quite good at picking tomatoes.’”

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