How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (2023)

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (1)

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The Corona pandemic has turned the world of work upside down, not just for office workers who have had to think about how to hold meetings via Zoom. It also meant big changes for so-called “low-skilled” workers.

Almost overnight, they've gone from being the butt of jokes ("if all else fails, I'll end up making hamburgers") to frontline heroes, as we realize how much we depend on their work to keep our society running smoothly. .

Supermarket cashiers, delivery people, hospital doormen – all received new recognition and were even inducted into the US Department of Labor Hall of Honor in 2022.[1]

And yet, if we look at where we are on the slow road out of the pandemic, what has really changed?Restrictions have been lifted, but so-called "low-skill" work is still often the lowest paid.

Could it be true that "low-skilled" jobs are essential in times of need but do not require skills to perform? Or do employers need to adjust their perspective on these roles and recognize the wide rangevaluable skillsencapsulano?

We're on the last page and in this blog we talk about the myth of 'low-skilled' work and how employers can remove this obsolete term from their vocabulary.

table of contents

  • What do we mean by "low-skilled" jobs?
  • Labeling jobs as "low-skilled" denies valuable skills
  • Does “Low Skills” Mean Just Low Salaries?
  • Why We Should Ditch the Idea of ​​"Low Skilled" Labor
  • How Employers Can Break the Low-Skill Mindset
  • There is no low-skilled worker.
  • Fuentes

What do we mean by "low-skilled" jobs?

First, it is important to talk about the historical significance of “low-skilled” work. "Unskilled" or "low-skilled" are old-fashioned terms often used for workers who are considered less influential in the job market. This is usually because they don't have a high school or college degree or because they have lower digital skills.

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (5)

"Low Skill" jobs are jobs that do not require prior education or extensive experience to perform and do not require complex machine or computer skills to perform.Examples include cashiers, servers, janitors, and many other service industry professionals.
However, more and more people[2]in the United States do not have a high school diploma, and almosta third of American workers lack digital skills. Under the above definition of 'low-skilled' work, this large group of people has little to offer employers, but we argue that this assessment is incorrect.

Labeling jobs as "low-skilled" denies valuable skills

If you look at the job listing above and see only "low-skilled" roles, that means taking a very selective view of each job's requirements. Slide into the role of a cashier. To do this job well, you need a lot of specific skills, such as:

  • basic math skillsCheck that the balances are correct
  • Attention to detail to identify transaction issues and withdraw offers and registrations
  • Problem Solving Skills

Not to mention the interpersonal skills required for these types of roles, includingcommunication skillsfor dealing with clients, emotional regulation, etc.the right personalityfor customer-oriented work.

Such abilities cannot be discarded immediately. In our own 2022 skills-based hiring report,mais de 73% dos entrevistadosHe believed that having excellent soft skills is more important for candidates today than it was five years ago.

Skills required in so-called "low-skill" jobs can also be transferred to other roles. For example,many of the same skills neededIn customer-facing roles such as a cashier, they are also employed in "medium ability" jobs that require some post-secondary education but not a college degree. An example might be a paralegal role that also requires:

  • Discipline and ability to adhere to company policies.
  • Clear communication when dealing with clients and colleagues.
  • Empathy for customers' difficulties.
  • Conflict resolution when dealing with disagreements between team members and clients.

These skills are also transferable to management and leadership roles. From this perspective, we see that these roles are not low-skilled.So what are we talking about when we refer to these roles? In many cases, we think that when we say underqualified, we simply mean underpaid.

Does “Low Skills” Mean Just Low Salaries?

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (6)

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics.lowest paying jobs in americaare all positions that are currently considered low-skilled. They include:

  • Shampoo ($25,160 per year)
  • Chefs de Fast Food ($ 25.490)
  • Hosts and Hostesses ($26,000)
  • Clerk and Fast Food ($26,060)
  • Box ($26,770)

To understand why these roles pay so poorly despite requiring the skills discussed above, let's look at the highest paying jobs to compare them. Based on the same dataset, the highest paying profession in the US is cardiology, where professionals earn an average of $353,970 per year.

Even in an ideal world, cardiologists would likely be paid more than cashiers. It is a position that requires years of medical training, both in universities and in hospitals. It comes with a lot of responsibility and nobody would deny that this is not a highly skilled job.

But the fact that cardiology is a highly skilled profession does not mean that the existing mechanisms by which cardiologists acquire their skills are the only mechanisms by which cardiologists acquire their skills.anyuseful skills are acquired, nor are highly specialized skills the only rewarding ones.

It is also true that skill is not the only factor behind the high salary of cardiologists. The amount of potential revenue a function can generate for an organization is an equally powerful influence. Cardiology procedures are not only complex and riskysome of the most profitable for hospitalsUS United States.

In the United Kingdom, on the other hand, where there is a nationalized health service,Cardiologists are paid significantly less, at an average of £93,764 or $116,584. This is still a competitive salary, but much lower than in the US.

With this in mind, it may be that the crucial difference in the gap between high-, mid- and low-skill jobs lies not just in the amount of education candidates bring to the workforce, but in its visible impact on the bottom. work line. a work organization.

At first glance, this doesn't seem like a problem for employers to solve. Some executives might argue that a cashier obviously doesn't contribute to a company's bottom line and should be paid less for their work. However, we believe there are several important reasons why this is not the case.

Why We Should Ditch the Idea of ​​"Low Skilled" Labor

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (7)

It's not just that the term "low-skilled" is inaccurate; it is actively harmful which means companies should get rid of it completely, here's why.

1. Perpetuates existing prejudices

As mentioned above, the definition of 'low-skill' and 'high-skill' roles is highly dependent on formal education, particularly the completion of at least a university degree.

This is a biased position that employers often take when hiring. Rather than testing candidates to see what they can actually do, they use a college degree as a substitute for a whole range of skills that might not even be taught as part of a candidate's degree, such as digital skills.

That's itparticularly common in medium skill jobsaffected by automation and contributes to the phenomenon known as "grade inflation". This refers to titles needed for roles that were not previously requested and (probably) don't really need them.

It's not just gibberish. Gradual inflation had a notable effect on employment development. Compared to 2010, employment rates for 25- to 34-year-olds were higher in 2021, butonly for those with a bachelor's degreethe tallest.

Requiring a degree as a shortcut to digital skills is not only an ineffective way of hiring, it also supports other biases based on educational inequality in the United States.

Recent research has found that performance gaps exist between black and white students in the US.expanded during the pandemic. These inequalities are reflected in the types of skills that different populations are likely to possess.

To give just one example,more than half of Latino workersthey have limited or no digital skills and a quarter only have internet access via a smartphone. Latinos make up nearly a fifth of the US job market and will account for half of all new workers by 2025; that's a big part to drop.

By insisting on college degrees as shorthand for "employability skills" and sending all other workers to "low-skill" (i.e., low-paying) jobs, you are hurting already underrepresented minorities and missing out on much of the applicant pool and countless opportunities for innovation.

The benefits of diversity for companies are well known, butThese efforts have long been neglected by low-income workers.. Extending these efforts into low-paying roles can have potentially transformative impacts on your business.

2. Justify the exploitation

By selectively choosing which skills we value in the workplace, we justify reducing support for "low-skilled" workers. This means driving wages below the cost of living and cutting access to social benefits, or even forcing “low-skilled” workers to work in precarious conditions, prioritizing efficiency over worker safety or well-being.

We can see an example in the lastAmazon workers allegationswho accused their employer of exploitative practices, such as inadequate safety procedures to prevent COVID infection in the camps.

This risk is particularly relevant for "low-skill" jobs, as the low barrier to entry in terms of prior qualifications makes these roles attractive to already vulnerable populations such as immigrants and refugees.

You might think you're exempt from this pattern of exploitation because you treat all of your employees with respect, but does that include functions you outsource nationally or internationally?

It's no secret that outsourcing to countries where labor is particularly cheap can often encourage worker exploitation, but domestic outsourcing has its problems, too.

In particular, it relieves your organization of the burden of caring for its low-skilled workforce, rather than shifting them to other companies whose business practices you have no control over and may not align with your external values.

Consider cleaning work. A few decades ago, your business or office could have had a dedicated janitor looking out for you. Today, most offices use third-party cleaning services.Some research even suggests that outsourcing cleaning and security services leads to this.Salary deductions for low-paying service occupations.

Falling wages are not the only negative impact these practices have on “low-skilled” workers either.

3. Puts the onus of learning on individuals, not employers to invest in their employees.

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (8)

The continuous training of its employees must be a top priority for any future-oriented company. Helps you close skills gaps in your workforce, makes you a more attractive employer and is balancedrecommended to promote innovation.

However, “low-skilled” workers are often left out of these initiatives. Even the title suggests they provide basic necessities for the workforce.

Unlike workers in 'intermediate' or 'high-skill' jobs, 'low-skill' workers are not expected to pursue careers or develop a skill set that they can use to move up in the workforce. They are simply there to perform a critical business function.

This means that if an employee wants to break out of this cycle, they are expected to do so themselves rather than seeking the employer's support. They can do this by attending evening classes outside of work. But even that may not be a viable path to advancement due to the aforementioned grade inflation.

Because rank requirements are a barrier to moving into "mid-skill" jobs, "low-skill" employees have very few opportunities for promotion. All this leads to one conclusion for employees:

4. Blocks career advancement

How the low-skill label is hurting the workforce (and how to fix it) (9)

When workers are labeled "low-skilled" or fired,internal mobilityit becomes virtually impossible, at least within the support systems offered by most organizations.

When valuable skills like clear communication are dismissed as having no "real" value to companies, "low skill" work experience is viewed as a negative rather than a positive, simply because the employee seems more likely to repeat the same experience. to develop. or improve a variety of valuable skills.

Add to this the lack of investment by employers in so-called 'low-skilled' workers, which means that there are few opportunities for low-skilled workers to progress within companies, for example into corporate or managerial positions.

This especially applies to outsourcing. Working in satellite teams, separate from the employees whose offices they clean and the managers they hire, "low-skilled" employees are prevented from moving in and out of their corporate structure.

It's not an entirely bleak picture. There is evidence that the harm caused by labeling certain jobs as "low-skilled" is highfelt less in some sectors than in others: That is, industries in which competition for "low-skill" jobs allows those in "high-skill" jobs to be more successful in their jobs.

Examples include a school or medical secretary, or an air transport worker who can be compared to low-skilled workers in industries where soft skills are less valued, such as manufacturing. B. cleaners or bar staff generally receive higher wages and better wage development.

(Interestingly, this trend is especially true for innovative companies and those that are investing more in training their employees — which is food for thought.)

However, in general, giving up the skills needed for "cheap wage" jobs has tangible costs for individuals and hidden costs for companies. So how can you start changing the way you hire to avoid these pitfalls?

How Employers Can Break the Low-Skill Mindset

Now that you know why layering roles into low, medium, and high skill categories hurts your workforce, here are some ways to actively root out this mindset in your organization.

The first method is to get rid of the completion requirements that support this broken system.adopt a competency-based approach to recruitmentinstead.

With competency-based hiring, you test candidates on what they can really do, not just what their school or college credentials say they learned.This means that you can not only see what skills candidates really have, but you can more easily compare their skills in each of these areas.

It's not just hard skills you can experiment with. You can alsotest soft skills like communication.

Once you've successfully implemented competency tests, you can use them to build a competency map of your workforce—not just your managers and employees, but your "low-skilled" workers as well. talent mappingprovides a high-level view of the skills that exist in your organization and helps you identify opportunities for collaboration and advocacy.

As we mentioned earlier, many of the skills frontline workers use in organizations apply to other roles in the organizational structure. Bringing someone onto one of your management teams with deep institutional knowledge and first-hand experience in supply chain processes can help drive innovation in your organization.

Finally, and perhaps most radically, you can adopt a servant leadership style; In other words, don't ask what your employees can do for you, ask what you can do for them.

This is most relevant for companies with a large number of frontline workers, such as the B. service industry. A famous example of a servant executive is Cheryl Bachelder, the CEO who took over the bankrupt Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen in 2007.

When he took over, Bachelder realized that, within the corporate structure, top management saw its employees not as a resource to be maximized, but as a nuisance to be silenced.

To combat this, he implemented aservant leadership modelProvide franchisees and teams with clear strategic goals, ask what resources are needed to achieve them, and provide those resources.

The results spoke for themselves. Popeyes may have flopped when Bachelder was incorporated in 2007, but when he sold the company to Burger King 10 years later, it raked in nearly $2 billion.

There is no low-skilled worker.

In the past, when we only had rudimentary tools to make hiring decisions, it made more sense to categorize workers into low-, mid-, and high-skill occupations.

However, with the tools we have today, there is no excuse for this outdated thinking. Competency-based recruiting tools not only help us recognize themwide range of skills that exist in our workforceand developbalanced teamsbut also to drive innovation.

To get started with competency-based recruiting and eliminate outdated notions about which employees are worth hiring, check out our guide.Adoption of skills-based hiring practicesin your organization.


  1. "US Department of Labor inducts top workers from the coronavirus pandemic into the Labor Hall of Honor." (September 1, 2022).US Department of Labor. Accessed January 12, 2023.
  2. "More and more Americans don't have a high school diploma." (2011).fence. Accessed January 12, 2023.
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What is the skills gap in the United States? ›

The skills and training job seekers have often doesn't match the experience required for specialized jobs in the emerging economy. This difference between the skills that employers are looking for and the training and experience that candidates possess is called the “skills gap.”

What is the middle skills job gap? ›

The 'Middle Skills' Gap: Half of America's Jobs Require More Than High School Diplomas but Less Than 4-Year Degrees.

What are the 3 reasons behind the job skills gap? ›

What Causes a Skills Gap? A few variables, ranging from poor education to an evolving workforce, contribute to the national skills gap. Three major factors in the current skills gap are a lack of tech training, retiring baby boomers, and a lack of soft-skills development.

How do you answer skill gap? ›

Be honest, positive and sincere. Focus on discussing skills that are relevant to the job criteria. Use this as an opportunity to offer self-reflection, showcasing that you are eager to work on improving your skills.

What is a skills gap example? ›

A skills gap is a gap between the skills an employee has and the skills he or she actually needs to perform a job well. Skills gaps vary depending on the job in question and the types of skills required for the job.

What is the major effect of skill gap? ›

Skill gaps have the potential to harm firm-level productivity as average worker productivity is likely to be lower in the presence of substantial skill gaps; skill gaps will also tend to inflate average labour costs as organisations require more workers per unit of output.

How do you overcome lack of skills? ›

Here are steps you can take to overcome a skills gap:
  1. Identify your strengths and weaknesses. ...
  2. Revisit your current job requirements. ...
  3. Review your recent performance evaluations. ...
  4. Speak to your supervisor or manager. ...
  5. Locate education and training opportunities. ...
  6. Make a definite plan.
Dec 12, 2022

How are you going to overcome lack of skills? ›

For the skills and areas that you lack sufficient knowledge, fill the gap with education or sideline experiences. Take a course or moonlight. You are in charge of your career. Do what you need to do, and learn what you need to fill your skills gap and increase your confidence in your ability.

What is the best answer for gaps in employment? ›

You want to be truthful without going into unnecessary detail. A basic template for your answer could be: “I [reason you were not employed]. During that time, [what you did during the gap]. Returning to work was top of mind during that period and I'm ready to do that now.

What is lack of skills in the workplace? ›

The term “skills gap” describes a fundamental mismatch between the skills that employers rely upon in their employees, and the skills that job seekers possess. This mismatch makes it difficult for individuals to find jobs and for employers to find appropriately trained workers.

How do you explain gaps in resume due to burnout? ›

Say you were unemployed from 2020 to 2021. Rather than leaving this date range off your resume, include it with a brief description of what you were doing instead. This description could be anything from freelancing to volunteering to taking classes.

What is current skills gap? ›

A skills gap is the difference between an employee's current abilities and the skillset best suited for their job. Companies have a desired set of skills to perform a given role successfully. This list of skills is dynamic and changes depending on external market forces and internal organizational changes.

What is the basic skills gap? ›

The term “skills gap” describes a fundamental mismatch between the skills that employers rely upon in their employees, and the skills that job seekers possess. This mismatch makes it difficult for individuals to find jobs and for employers to find appropriately trained workers.

Is there still a skills gap? ›

Nearly seven in 10 human resource professionals believe their organization has a skills gap, according to Wiley's Closing the Skills Gap report published Tuesday. And those concerns are growing. In 2021, for example, only about 55% of HR and recruiting employees surveyed reported this issue.


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