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Low-skilled workers are underpaid and undervalued. Yet the notion that a brighter future awaits them in higher skilled roles is largely a myth. Caring, cleaning and bartending are jobs that will be with us for years to come, so we had better find a way of making them more bearable.

Race against the machine

Another week, another bold claim about the threat of a new machine age.

This time it was the Bank of England’s Chief Economist, Andy Haldane, who warned listeners on the Today Programme that new technologies like AI and robotics will spur the loss of jobs on a scale similar to the previous three industrial revolutions. In other words: we are in for a bumpy ride.

Haldane is not alone. Barely a month passes without another prediction that millions of humans will soon be put out to pasture. Earlier this year, PwC suggested 7 million jobs are at risk of being eliminated by AI by 2040. The Bank of England’s own research team puts the figure at 15 million by 2035.

The solution? To upskill like there’s no tomorrow. At least, that is the message according to virtually every economist, think-tank and politician.

While new forms of AI and robotics are nipping at the heels of cognitive work, including in law, finance and medicine, automation is thought to pose the largest threat to manual work, especially that which is routinised. Picking and packing machines could take the jobs of warehouse operatives, self-driving cars could replace taxi drivers, agricultural robots could substitute for farm labourers, and so on.

But popular theory has it that if workers can upskill fast enough then they should have a hand over the machines. Just as workers moved from the fields and into the factories, and then into the office blocks, restaurants and supermarkets of the service industries, so too – with enough retraining – can they find work in emerging industries, whatever they may be.

The government has clearly embraced this narrative. Despite cutbacks to the adult education budget – which fell by 34 percent in real terms between 2010 and 2015 – Whitehall has shown renewed interest in lifelong learning. A new National Retraining Scheme has been established, Skills Advisory Panels will be rolled out in every area to advise on retraining priorities, and adult education budgets will soon be devolved to mayoral sites.

The myth of a high-skilled future

But do we need a reality check?

Implicit in calls for upskilling is an assumption there will be enough high-skilled work to go around. This is a tall order. The proportion of jobs that are high-skilled may indeed be growing, but not nearly fast enough. Recent analysis by the IFS found that high-skilled jobs made up 46 percent of roles in 2016, barely higher than the 42 percent they occupied in 2005.* Not everyone can become a machine learning engineer, cyber security specialist or social media content manager.

Low-skilled occupations are also more resilient to automation than is commonly assumed. The number of warehouse operatives is growing in fact – up by 115,000 since 2010. The number of social care workers is likewise expected to continue rising, mostly in response to demographic shifts. Already, there are thought to be 84,000 vacancies in adult social care at any one time. Low-skilled work, it seems, will be with us for some while yet.

All of which suggests we need to rethink our approach to low-skilled work. Rather than help people escape these roles for non-existent jobs up the career ladder, the energy of policymakers and educators would be better spent empowering people to develop within them.

This means more than extolling the virtues of low skilled work. Writing in the New York Times, waitress Britanny Bronson is spot on when she says the job of nursery carers, teaching assistants and bar tenders is more demanding than many people realise, with plenty of hidden emotional labour at play. But repeating this mantra over and over in seminars, panel debates and op-eds doesn’t get us far.

The reality is that many of the occupations viewed as low-skilled today are in fact low-skilled. Not because of something innate to the job, but because they have gradually been commoditised to within an inch of their life. In economic speak, commoditisation means standardising jobs and ironing out differentiation. Chefs now create meals to a set menu, cleaners complete a fixed set of pre-determined tasks, and delivery drivers are guided to pick-up points following a blue line on an app.

Commoditisation goes hand in hand with de-skilling, which in turn reduces the bargaining power of workers (if anyone can do the job, why would employers pay a premium?). Hemmed in by parameters, staff have fewer opportunities to show flair or personality, denying their ability to create value for consumers and stifling their autonomy at work. HR specialist Laetitia Vitaud lays blame at the door of outsourcing and Taylorism, which have neutered occupations in the name of efficiency improvements.

Everyone a professional

The challenge for advocates of good work is to find a way of de-commoditising labour. What would it take to re-craft roles, so they allow for variation and demonstrate the unique qualities of workers? How can we reframe every job as a profession?

Much will come down to the strategies of individual companies. Low cost business models prioritise standardisation and efficiency over giving workers the space to experiment – and there is little we can do to change that in the short-term. But advocates of good work can push for quick wins, for example limiting the use of technology that further commoditises work (see Amazon’s wristband patent as a case in point), or encouraging employers to take up digital badges, which encourage workers to accumulate new skills without necessarily progressing up the ranks.

A more significant move would be to extend the use of occupational licenses, which set a bar of quality for workers to reach. These may impose barriers to entry, but they also professionalise jobs and engender status. A recent study looking at the introduction of occupational licenses for security guards and nursery assistants found they can (although not always) improve the quality of work and raise workers’ earning power in a short period.

To describe driving, catering and waitering as professions may seem farfetched today, but we shouldn’t let our lack of imagination hold us back. Just ask black cabbies, brewers and sommeliers – all officially ‘low-skilled’ workers, but who are, in reality, anything but.


*There are multiple ways of defining ‘low-skilled’ occupations, however they are mainly understood to be roles that require little to no technical education to perform. The ONS has 9 occupational classifications, codes 7-9 of which are viewed as low-skilled (Sales and customer service occupations; Process, plant and machine operatives; and Elementary occupations).

Find out more about the Future Work Centre.


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