Why no job should be termed ‘low-skilled’

With the unemployment rate still high compared to pre-pandemic numbers and thousands of school leavers and university graduates entering a job market with far fewer opportunities than there were 18 months ago, this quote from an article in The Atlantic feels incredibly appropriate.

“All jobs could be good jobs. But only policymakers and business leaders have the skills to make that happen, not workers.”

Never has there been a better time to re-evaluate how we describe jobs and the value we all place on them. As those who work in the manual, service and caring professions can attest, their roles often require an enormous amount of skill – just not necessarily of the type that is learnt at university. More than ever employers want employees with a raft of soft skills that are essential as we navigate through a post-pandemic world. These are the kind of skills so-called ‘low-skilled’ workers can possess in abundance.

The value of soft skills

Essential workers have been the backbone of every country across the globe over the past year – they’ve cared for our elderly, our sick and our young, they’ve ensured our shops, workplaces and streets are clean, they’ve kept rapidly emptying shelves stocked, they’ve built homes, fixed our roads, and so much more. And yet for too long they have been undervalued, the skills that are involved day to day in their jobs misunderstood.

Think about the patience, empathy and negotiation skills it takes to be a good carer, or the precision, speed and ability to keep calm under pressure needed to be a prep cook. Many ‘low-skilled’ workers have incredibly emotionally and/or physically demanding jobs that require a raft of soft skills, vital for every workplace in a post-pandemic world. Moreover, any of these skills that they did not previously possess they learn on the job – skills that are invaluable in a number of professions and that should be valued when it comes to looking for a new job.

Skill as a social construct

The value society places on different skills goes back centuries, to a time when the class system was rigid and manual labour was viewed as a job for the lower classes. Despite all the progress we’ve made in so many areas of life, these views seem difficult to remove. As a result, any sort of work that can be done without formal training and especially without a degree, is viewed as less skilled by many – despite the fact that a considerable amount of skill is needed to undertake them. It is this kind of thinking that perpetuates the stereotypes used to determine what makes a ‘good job’. 

The myth of pay equating to skill level

In Priti Patel’s new post-Brexit immigration rules, in which a points-based system is being used to determine whether non-UK workers can gain employment in the UK, a number of ‘low-skilled’ workers have been announced. These include carers, construction workers and radiographers to name just a small handful. Are these low-skilled roles? Perhaps in terms of official qualifications but certainly not in any other way. Physiotherapists and paramedics also make it into this list because the average salary is under the threshold of £25,600. However, as this makes clear, lower pay does not always mean a lower skill level and policies such as this run the risk of demeaning the jobs of hundreds of thousands of essential workers. This is troubling both from an ethical viewpoint and because many of these industries continue to struggle to fill vacant positions.

An undervaluation of Healthcare skills?

The Health & Nursing sector is a case in point, having long had a history of candidate shortages, leading to trouble filling jobs. WaveTrackR’s Recruitment Trends: Lockdown Report revealed that Health & Nursing received an average of 4 applications per job in 2020 compared to the average of 17 across all industries – the third-lowest overall. WaveTrackR data has further shown that Health & Nursing has posted some of the highest percentages of jobs and yet received amongst the lowest average numbers of applications per job every month in 2021 to date.

With continued poor pay, fewer workers recruited from the EU and an ageing population, clearly something must be done to tackle endemic shortages in the sector. Addressing the skills issue would surely be a stepping stone – when people feel a job is undervalued they are less likely to apply and employee turnover will be higher.    

All skills should be valued

In order to have a fully functioning economy, all types of skills and workers are needed. That much was made very clear during the pandemic. The skills required for the many essential jobs that are vital in the structure of our economy are no less important than those that you have to take an exam to attain.

The Office for National Statistics uses the Standard Occupational Classification to create a hierarchy of skills. This is used purely as a way to classify workers for statistical purposes but it is reflective of the way levels of importance are placed on different skills. The jobs ‘low-skilled’ workers do are far from being unskilled. It is merely that society needs to adjust its definition of what constitutes a skill for the 21st century.

Radical change clearly needs to take place to begin to fix the value we place on different jobs and skillsets. Parents and teachers must attach value to all jobs, employers and recruiters can help by adjusting the way certain jobs are advertised, the media needs to pay attention to the words it uses when talking about such roles. Recruiting for hard-to-fill positions could be transformed if those with the skills to apply for them felt valued. Everyone should feel dignity at work, none more so than those who keep our society functioning. 

Share this article: