My local coffee shop, Goody’s Juice and Java, was where I mastered the art of so-called “unskilled” labor, or work that doesn’t require formal education. I had spent the previous summer working in a restaurant where I became an expert in enduring long shifts and angry customers. I’d serve every order with a smile, even as my feet ached and hot plates burned my hands. But, I had never quite gotten the hang of working through an intense rush hour without getting overwhelmed, or of balancing cleaning and food preparation with completing orders.
In some cafés, baristas go through an intensive training and certification process. That wasn’t the case for my employer. Whatever I needed to know, my boss figured I’d be able to pick up on the job. At the beginning of my tenure there, I couldn’t tell a latte from a cappuccino — I was basically only good for washing dishes. But when I left, I could make drinks, clean the entire café top to bottom and please even the most demanding customers. I wasn’t a certified barista and I hadn’t earned that much money, but at the end of the summer, I knew infinitely more about hard work and professionalism than I had before.
The café was just one role in a long string of gigs I worked during high school and the summer after my freshman year of college. First: a server’s assistant at a trendy local restaurant. It was popular with tourists visiting my sleepy hometown from cities such as Chicago and Detroit and had a gentrifier-industrial-chic look: exposed brick, metal bar stools painted bright yellow, hanging pendant lights and Americana-inspired decor.
Roles were loosely defined there: Sometimes I played hostess, sometimes I made salads, sometimes I cleared tables and washed dishes. That had been my first job; I was 15 when I started. Afterward, there was a brief stint as a receptionist at a marina. And finally, after completing my lifeguard certification, I spent two summers working at a community pool and tutoring on the side.
In high school, I wasn’t working because I wanted money to go out with my friends. I didn’t see it as a résumé-building experience. I was working because I knew my parents couldn’t support me after I turned 18. I wanted to attend college, but at the time, there was no guarantee that I’d go on to earn a degree.
My experience working in high school felt distinct from most of my college classmates’. If they had spent a summer as a waitress or a lawn-mower, it was often because they were “paying their dues.” The job was just an intermediate, strictly temporary phase in a life that had set them up to becoming a management consultant or financial analyst. There was no question that they would, in time, move up to the ranks of “skilled labor.”
Now, I like to tell stories of my “past lives” to my college classmates, especially if I know they haven’t worked a low-wage job before. There were certain tells revealing that someone hadn’t, the most obvious being how they treated low-wage workers. But a trained eye can see other signs, too. If you don’t stack your plates, I know. If you complain about tip jars at coffee shops, I know. (An aside: It’s common knowledge that servers can be paid below minimum wage because they make tips, but if you see a tip jar at a coffee shop or boba place, there’s a decent chance their employer classifies them as a “tipped employee” and pays below minimum wage).
With my friends, I’d reenact memorable exchanges with customers or recall the grossest bathrooms I had cleaned. Reactions were mixed. Sometimes my peers were disgusted, sometimes they were sympathetic and sometimes they’d laugh along with me. While I had certainly exaggerated the less savory details of my jobs, I never felt ashamed for having worked them. I never felt like my labor was “unskilled” or unimportant: Every job I had in high school proved quite the contrary.
With a tightening labor market and record-high numbers of workers quitting their jobs in the service industry, low-wage workers have received unprecedented attention from policymakers and the white-collared executives who take them for granted. Simultaneously dubbed “essential” and “unskilled,” the message to these workers is clear: Society needs your labor to function, but won’t give you the dignity or pay that you deserve.
Just days after his inauguration in early January, New York City Mayor Eric Adams sparked controversy when he urged downtown offices to reopen. In what appeared to be an attempt to highlight the interconnectedness of the city’s economy, Adams said, “my low-skilled workers, my cooks, my dishwashers, my messenger, my shoe shine people, those that work in Dunkin’ Donuts, they don’t have the academic skills to sit in the corner office. They need this.”
Adams later said he meant to say “low-wage” instead of “low-skilled,” but his correction only emphasized the logical fallacy in his original statement. Adams seems to suppose that wage and “skill” are dependent on ability, rather than deeper issues of access and an inequitable job market.
In this line of thinking that his comments represent, the Wall Street employee making six figures in a corner office is there because they’ve earned it, they’ve studied hard and capitalized on their natural talents. The janitor cleaning their office just isn’t cut out for white-collar work.
I had a series of internships and other professional experiences in college but still felt like my financial situation was precarious. It wasn’t until November of 2021, when I accepted an internship offer working in data science and product growth at Facebook, that I realized my days of working low-wage jobs and worrying about money were behind me. Since the summer after my freshman year, I’ve made the jump from an “unskilled” worker to a cushy, well-compensated tech job. I had a sense I was underpaid and undervalued as a high schooler, but I had grown up in a post-industrial town as part of a working-class family. Working in poor conditions and for low wages was simply the norm.
Now, people I don’t know message me on LinkedIn to ask about my internship. When I was home for the holidays, my parents repeatedly prompted me to “tell them where you’re working next summer” when in the company of others. The male classmates who spoke over me in class treat me differently once they find out I have a FAANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) internship.
Upon entering the corporate world, I’ve struggled to reconcile the long hours and low pay at my first jobs with the status and privilege that my education has afforded me. How did my degree catapult me into the white-collar world? My low-wage jobs had taught me invaluable lessons, but would my corporate colleagues recognize their value? What knowledge and expertise does the term “unskilled” obscure?
I spoke with Adam Stevenson, a lecturer in the University’s Economics Department, to try to understand the relationship between education and “unskilled labor.” He expressed frustration that the term had been co-opted from academia, noting that its precise definition is often lost in translation.
“One problem with economics is that we use a lot of words that are conveyed in plain language and used all the time, but when we use them in our models, they’re being used in a very particular way,” Stevenson said.. “When an economist in a practice of modeling says ‘unskilled,’ they mean that the requirement of entry into that job involves a low degree of education … Do I think that these jobs don’t take practice, that they don’t involve dignity, that they don’t involve an incredible amount of learning? No.”
Stevenson acknowledged the problematic implications that come with labeling something as “unskilled.”
“It’s hard to separate that sort of moral judgment of the word,” Stevenson said. “It certainly does lack in public relations versus what it’s actually meant to convey, which is that even though those jobs are really important, essential jobs and even though they can take impressive feats of skill and endurance and knowledge, they still pay less.”
As Stevenson’s comment suggests, the terms “unskilled” and “low wage” work are often used interchangeably. And while the formal definition of “unskilled” labor makes no reference to wages, it was telling that they were used together. “Low-wage” and “unskilled” don’t have to be synonymous, but for all intents and purposes, they are.
Adams’s comments and other takes on “unskilled” labor seem to reflect this misunderstanding of how the term is technically defined. Still, the buzzword has taken on a life of its own. The term “unskilled labor” — both in academic and colloquial uses — purposefully obscures the knowledge and expertise that goes into these roles.
Engineering junior Peter Wu started working when he was 11. First, he worked at a restaurant owned by his relatives, and then in the restaurant his parents opened after they moved to Michigan. There, he dabbled in all aspects of the business. Wu cleared tables, cooked food, filed taxes, managed business operations and delivered orders on his bike before he could drive.
“From 11 to 18, I’ve been working in a restaurant with my parents or somebody else’s place. I didn’t ask for any wage, because at the time I thought learning these skills are good and beneficial,” Wu said.
But it was about more than just building skills. Wu and his family put in long hours at the restaurant because “for us, every penny counted. And every penny still counts. We needed this to make a living.”
There’s a certain kind of folk knowledge that goes into making espresso. It was given to me by my coworkers, and later I passed it down to the new baristas. The level of pressure you apply to the grounds, the angle you insert the portafilter, the pitch of the machine — all crucial steps to mastering the craft. I spent my first week making coffee that was either too strong or too weak before I began to understand the subtle marks of a perfect brew.
My attention to detail extended beyond just the drinks — I knew which corners of the café collected sand in the summer, and salt in the winter. When a regular walked in, I started on their order before they arrived at the register. No matter what state the bathroom was in, I could have it in tip-top condition in under 10 minutes.
I had gained plenty of skills but was still lacking in formal qualifications. Employers were unwilling to take my word that I was good at my job. I was only making $7.25 an hour plus tips as a barista, and I saw the writing on the wall: The quickest route to getting paid more was finding something that required certain credentials.
Out of all my high school jobs, lifeguarding came the closest to professional labor. I managed to squeeze all 26.5 hours of training in on the weekend of senior prom; I have fond memories of clicking through Red Cross modules on my computer while my friends did my hair. What people don’t often understand is that at many pools, cleaning is a huge part of a lifeguard’s job. In the two years I was certified, I never even got in the water to perform a rescue. I did, however, mop floors and wipe down bathrooms every day.
My lifeguard certification certainly carried some respect with it, but that didn’t translate into higher wages. I was paid $10 an hour at the pool. It was only when I got to college that my working conditions improved. The hours of training I had put into becoming a lifeguard were worth much less than having “University of Michigan student” emblazoned at the top of my résume.
At the University, I pursued a career in tech partially because I liked solving problems and partially because I was worried about money. I entered college as an idealistic pre-law student, interested in community organizing and public service — but I craved a level of financial security that I had never known growing up. A job at a non-profit wouldn’t give me what I was looking for.
Before I even realized I had made a decision, I was accepting a job at Facebook and mentally preparing to move to Silicon Valley. My hourly rate was around the same as my dad’s, who was a maintenance technician at a coal-burning power plant. I struggled to wrap my head around that fact.
My wage felt comically detached from my actual skills. I had gotten the job by teaching myself an outdated programming language called SQL in my spare time. My dad, who’s highest level of education was a high-school diploma, had spent a lifetime mastering tools and machines without any formal training.
Stevenson says there are two schools of thought in economics about why more educated workers tend to earn higher wages. The first reason is one I constantly hear parroted back to me by college administrators and the managerial class: a college education makes you more productive, and when you’re more productive, you create more economic output.
This explanation was incredibly counterintuitive to me. At the coffee shop, I could directly see the products of my labor: sending dozens of people through the door with their drinks, tangible products that people would actually use and enjoy. At my corporate internships, I had a sense that I made slide decks and sent emails without actually creating any value. I once spent two weeks at an internship creating a 200-slide dossier that I’m confident no one read. That certainly wasn’t economic output.
The second theory, Stevenson explained to me, is about signaling.
“When you get a diploma, it’s just like an ad,” he said. “It’s an ad that says, ‘you know who I am. I’m the kind of person who goes to the University of Michigan, and University of Michigan people are special’ … In the most extreme version of the signals model, that’s all your Michigan education does. In the signaling model, what you learn is totally irrelevant. You’re just saying, I’m the kind of person who learns fast and can endure hardship. So hire me because that’s the kind of worker you want.”
This was the theory that manifested in my experience. Adding the line “Bachelors of Science, Anticipated May 2023,” to my resume felt like a golden ticket to a class of white-collar jobs I had never even heard of before starting college.
Still, I felt like something was missing from signaling theory. My degree gave me specialized knowledge, but the actual skills I needed to be the “kind of worker (employers) want” — handling workplace conflict, prioritizing tasks, balancing immediate needs with long term objectives — were all things I had learned in my “unskilled” roles. My degree gave a seal of legitimacy to what I already knew.
Wu also commented on how working for his parents had helped him as a computer science student.
In addition to learning how to work with others and how to leverage team members’ strengths, he noted that he “learned that how a restaurant is run translates really well into how computers are organized. When I think about computer science, I always think back to how my restaurant works. So for example, like when I learned multithreading, I always thought, ‘Okay, if I have to cook multiple things at once, and there’s only, like, so many pots and stools, how do I then leverage all those at the same time and make the order as fast as possible without sacrificing the quality,’” Wu said. “My first inkling when I took different CS classes was how do I model different problems in terms of what I already know; that helped me a lot.”
I tend to think of education as an equalizing force. I certainly wouldn’t have wound up where I am, financially independent from my parents, if I hadn’t gone to college. But in some ways, narratives of low-income students going from being “unskilled” workers to highly trained professionals obscure the truth of the matter: Education does not counteract inequality. It perpetuates inequality.
“The fact that people who get a bachelor degree on average earn more money, that’s one dimension of inequality. A college education creates more inequality, or at least it has in America,” Stevenson said.
In attempting to reconcile my degree and privilege with my socioeconomic background, I’ve focused on what I’ve taken with me from my “unskilled” jobs, but that’s a perspective rooted in privilege. It’s a complex feeling. Having supported myself through college at an incredibly wealthy institution, I certainly don’t feel privileged at times. But I’m getting my degree from a respected school and working in a respected field, so let’s call it what it is.
These so-called “unskilled” jobs aren’t just stepping stones to something “greater” or more “valuable.” They aren’t merely summer jobs for teenagers and college students. These roles have immense value in and of themselves. The term “essential” worker has made that abundantly clear.
Reflecting on the contradiction between “unskilled” and “essential,” Wu noted that “the fact that we need to differentiate between different types of labor might be necessary in theoretical economics or labor economics, but I don’t think it fits too well into (reality)the picture. Everyone plays an equally important role.”
This “unskilled labor paradox” — where society’s most essential workers remain the least respected and the lowest paid — demands a resolution far beyond what I’ve offered here. But having been in those positions, I’m attuned to the invisible labor that keeps society running.
Behind every clean office building, empty trash bin and to-go order, there’s a person with highly specialized and contextual skills and knowledge.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.